Pancreatic cancer often doesn’t lead to any noticeable symptoms until the disease has spread past the pancreas.
Additionally, symptoms of the disease are varied and can be caused by a host of other conditions, making an early diagnosis difficult.
The symptoms for the disease include jaundice, dark urine, itchy skin, belly or back pain, weight loss, and poor appetite. Additionally, another early sign might be a blood clot in a vein called deep vein thrombosis or even diabetes.
, an oncologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that very few people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in the early stages of the disease.
“The problem with this cancer is the fact that it’s silent and there’s no screening for it,” he explained. “There’s nothing for pancreatic cancer short of doing a CAT scan every year, which is impossible to imagine because of the radiation and because of the economics of the country.”
chief of surgical oncology at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, has worked on improving treatment and the ability for physicians to detect the disease earlier.
“We’re just starting to make a dent in the prognosis and improve overall survival, but there is still so much more to do,” Donahue said in an emailed statement.
Donahue said that the median survival rate is about 12 to 15 months, but that some patients live much longer. He advised people newly diagnosed with the disease to take “one step at a time.”
If the tumor is small enough, it can be with surgery to fully remove the cancer. But these cases are fairly rare.
In metastatic cases, physicians may turn to chemotherapy first to shrink or the slow the growth of the cancer.
There is a of different chemotherapy drugs that can be used either alone or in combination.
Other treatments include radiation therapy, a type of nerve block to relieve cancer pain, and a stent to help keep bile ducts open.
With the rise of immunotherapy treatments — where the immune system is harnessed to help fight the cancer — Donahue said the first step for most patients is to get their tumor genetically sequenced.
They may qualify for immunotherapy in a clinical trial.
“It’s important to get treated with state-of-the-art therapy and be treated at a high-volume pancreatic cancer center that can offer promising clinical trials,” he said.
Alden also pointed to immunotherapy One recent study focused on patients with the BRCA mutation, better known as the breast cancer gene.
Physicians are trying to determine if medication used to treat breast cancer or ovarian cancer patients, who have the BRCA mutation, can be used to help pancreatic cancer patients who have the mutation.
While it’s too early to know if this research will be successful in treating pancreatic cancer effectively, Alden said similar research has meant a rapidly changing landscape for patients and physicians.
He pointed out that while current survival rates are low, they may be outdated.
“The field is changing so quickly with such speed that we probably don’t even have enough time to acquire new data to really show the current status of the situation,” he explained.