Cancer by the Numbers: Pancreatic Cancer

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pancreatic cancerby Jacki Donaldson, The Cancer Blog

My mom's best friend died from pancreatic cancer just three months after her diagnosis with the disease. One of my co-workers lost her mother to the same disease just weeks after diagnosis. Another co-worker's husband lost his battle with pancreatic cancer after a 15-month all-out fight. And a family friend has somehow been surviving this deadly disease for years now. He's the exception, defying the odds rarely in favor of long-term survival.

About 33,730 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006. Many of them -- 32,300 -- will die from the disease that is rarely caught early. Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

By the time a person exhibits symptoms of pancreatic cancer, the cancer has typically reached an unmanageable size and has spread to other organs. And because the pancreas is deep inside the body, doctors cannot see or feel tumors during routine exams. There are no blood tests that detect this cancer, and tumor marker tests often do not show indications of the disease until the cancer is advanced.

Symptoms that can signal pancreatic cancer include jaundice -- a yellowing of the skin and eyes -- that is present in about half of all people with the disease, belly and back pain, weight loss, digestive problems, swelling of the gallbladder, blood clots, and onset of diabetes.

Symptoms that cause alarm will prompt testing to determine whether or not cancer is present. An abdominal physical exam and various imaging tests -- CT scan, PET scan, ultrasound, and MRI -- will occur in combination with endoscopy to scope the pathway between the throat and small intestine and angiography to examine blood vessels. And while all this testing will provide clues, biopsy of the pancreatic tumor is the only sure-fire way to confirm pancreatic cancer.

Fine needle aspiration (FNA) and laproscopy are the common biopsy approaches. Most doctors try to avoid surgical biopsy unless it looks like an operation is necessary to remove the cancer. Although sadly, doctors often begin surgery only to find the cancer has spread too far for removal. In this event, a sample is taken and the surgery is stopped.

Most doctors prefer to stage pancreatic cancer as follows: resectable, indicating the cancer is only in the pancreas and can be surgically removed, locally advanced/unresectable, indicating the cancer has spread to the surrounding tissue but not to other organs, and metastatic, indicating the disease has spread to distant organs.

When applicable, surgery is the first line of treatment. Radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy often follow.

There is no way to prevent pancreatic cancer -- although there are certain risk factors that can loosely predict onset of the disease. The risk of this cancer increases with age, and 90 percent of patients are older than 55. Men, African-Americans, smokers, diabetics, people with chronic pancreatitis, the obese, and those with a family history of pancreatic cancer tend to be at highest risk. There is some concern that consistent contact with certain chemicals -- such as bug sprays, dyes, or gasoline products -- raise risk. And a diet marked by high red meat consumption may pose some danger.

Pancreatic cancer statistics are grim -- but they are just statistics, just numbers. And any one of us has a chance of beating the odds. My family friend is doing it, living long after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Apple CEO Steve Jobs -- diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004 -- is doing it, surviving a form of the disease curable with surgery. Miracles happen every day.

For more information about pancreatic cancer, visit the following sites -- where the content of this post was gathered.

American Cancer Society
Medline Plus
National Cancer Institute
National Pancreas Foundation

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