Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and is diagnosed in about 56,000 individuals each year. It is a serious disease due to a number of factors that make its diagnosis and treatment more difficult.
November has been designated Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to help inform and educate the public about this disease. Early diagnosis and treatment can help to improve the odds of survival.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
The pancreas is an organ that is located behind the stomach at the back of the abdomen, near the spine. This organ produces critical digestive juices and hormones that maintain normal blood sugar levels. Sometimes, the organ experiences abnormal growth of cells that lead to tumors that disrupt normal function.
Certain factors can contribute to the development of cancer of the pancreas, such as a family history of pancreatic disorders, smoking, long-standing diabetes and chronic inflammation of the pancreas.
Treatment Success Involves Special Challenges
Today’s cancer treatment has had many successes and innovations, but cancer of the pancreas continues to have a low survival rate. This is because of the position of the pancreas in the body, as well as other special factors.
Difficulty in Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer in the Early Stages
One of the reasons cancer of the pancreas is so difficult to treat is the lack of a single specific test that detects the presence of cancer cells. Cancer of the pancreas may not have any symptoms in the early stages and when symptoms do begin, they can mimic other diseases. Thus, ruling out other diseases must be done in the process of detecting the cancer.
Recent research has found some linkage between cancer of the pancreas and the genes for other types of cancers. But because cancer of the pancreas is expressed in several different genes, these linkages are not definitive. In the future, new types of tests may be developed that help diagnose this cancer earlier.
Surgery May Not Be a Good Option for Patients
Individuals with cancer of the pancreas may not be good candidates for surgery to remove the tumor. The location of the pancreas, at the back of the abdomen and behind the intestines, is also at an intersection of important blood vessels, which makes spreading of the cancerous cells during surgery a possibility. As a result, your physician may rely on chemotherapy to eliminate the tumor.
Pancreatic Cancer Is Often Resistant to Chemotherapy Drugs
The way cancer of the pancreas develops makes it resistant to treatment with common chemotherapy drugs. Usually, the actual cancer takes up only ten percent of the total volume of the tumor, with non-malignant cells surrounding it, forming a protective barrier that prevents chemotherapy drugs from reaching the malignancy. The inability to get through this protective barrier can make chemotherapy drugs less effective.
Although the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is currently not hopeful, scientists continue to research the cancer, its relationship to genes linked to other types of cancer and methods for early detection. These efforts will help facilitate diagnosis at an earlier stage and allow more effective treatments.