Health Watch: Pancreatic Cancer Can Be Treated

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The American Cancer Society’s estimates for pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2019 – 56,770 people will be diagnosed, and 45,750 people will die from it.

Sadly, pancreatic cancer has become one of the most feared cancers, because of its high mortality rate. It’s plagued celebrities such as Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs and now Alex Trebek. It’s a challenge because there’s no screening test for the cancer and no symptoms. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s usually advanced or metastasized. Surgery in conjunction with other treatment modalities is often the recommended course of treatment.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is hard to find early. The pancreas is deep inside the body, so early tumors can’t be seen or felt by healthcare providers during routine physical exams. People usually have no symptoms until the cancer has become very large or has already spread to other organs.

Dr. Carrie Luu, SLUCare surgical oncologist at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital talks about the symptoms, “A lot of patients report fatigue, weight loss.”

Fewer than 1 in 5 pancreatic cancers appear to be confined to the pancreas at the time they are found. Even then, not all of these cancers turn out to be truly resectable.

Surgery is the preferred treatment. Based on where the cancer started, usually either a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) or a distal pancreatectomy is used.

Whipple procedure is the only potentially curative intervention for malignant tumors of the pancreas. However, the majority of patients with pancreatic cancer present with metastatic or locally advanced unresectable disease; thus only 15-20% of patients are candidates for the Whipple procedure.

Dr. Luu says, “”We resect the pancreas head, the duodenum that it is intimately attached to, and plus or minus a part of the stomach, as well as the bile duct.”

Surgery for pancreatic cancer can often be done along with other treatment modalities (chemotherapy, radiation, embolization or ablation, immunotherapy and target therapy) to offer patients the best chance of treating the cancer and managing symptoms.

SLUCare surgical oncologists work with each patient to determine the stage of the cancer and the best way to treat it with the goal of eradicating the cancer, if possible, and/or preventing it from spreading while managing symptoms.

To help prevent getting pancreatic cancer: 1) Don’t smoke; 2) Stay at a healthy weight; 3) Limit alcohol use; 4) Limit exposure to chemicals at work.

To learn more about symptoms and treatments for pancreatic diseases, click here.

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