By now, you’ve probably heard the news. Beloved astronaut, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away on Monday after a 17-month long battle with pancreatic cancer. She joins the list of celebrities like Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze and the thousands of other people who were taken too soon by this disease.
Each time a public figure succumbs to pancreatic cancer; we are reminded that despite all the advances we’ve made in the fight against cancer, this one still manages to evade us. What is it about pancreatic cancer that makes it so deadly? More importantly, is there any hope on the horizon?
Scott Celinski, M.D., a surgical oncologist on the medical staff at the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas, helped us shed some light on this deadly disease.
Q: Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly?
First of all, there are no routine screenings. There are no procedures available similar to a mammogram or colonoscopy to help detect pancreatic cancer at an early stage when it’s most treatable. Dr. Celinski adds that in roughly 75 percent of cases the day someone is diagnosed is the day they find out the cancer has metastasized. This usually means treatment will be unsuccessful.
“Historically, traditional chemotherapy drugs have not been effective against pancreatic cancer,” explains Dr. Celinski.
“However, there are a few new treatment regimens that have shown promise. For example, FOLFIRINOX, a combination of different chemotherapy drugs, is three times as effective as traditional therapies. We are starting to use therapies like this as the standard treatment and we’re seeing a good response,” says Dr. Celinski.
Q: What are the symptoms?
Unfortunately, the symptoms for pancreatic cancer aren’t very specific. “By the time symptoms are present, the cancer is often advanced. The usual symptoms are very vague and include back or abdominal pain, nausea and even jaundice in some cases.”
Q: Is it possible to survive pancreatic cancer?
Yes. But Dr. Celinski says the five-year survival rate for the earliest stage of pancreatic cancer is only 20-30 percent.
However, if it’s caught early and has not metastasized, surgery may be a viable treatment option. Survival increases if the cancerous sections of the pancreas can be surgically removed followed by a chemotherapy regimen.
According to Dr. Celinski, humans can actually live without a pancreas. The organ is responsible for creating insulin and digestive enzymes but both of these can be replaced with medication.
“Pancreatic cancer is currently the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths. Unfortunately, it is estimated that by the year 2030, it will be one of the leading cancer killers. We have made amazing progress in the treatment of other common cancers, but not much progress with this one. But who knows what the future may hold? There are many other cancers and illnesses that were once considered deadly and now the survival rate is higher than ever.”
Q: Why is it so hard to treat?
Because pancreatic cancer has usually spread or metastasized beyond the pancreas at the time of diagnosis, it makes it very hard to stop. “That’s why early detection is so critical. Unfortunately, we don’t have an effective early detection method for pancreatic cancer yet. This, coupled with its resistance to standard chemotherapy, makes treatment extremely difficult,” says Dr. Celinski.
Q: Have there been any significant breakthroughs in research?
Dr. Celinski says we have not had any major breakthroughs in pancreas cancer, but we are making incremental steps forward. “We have hope that treatments being studied now will continue to improve outcomes for patients with pancreas cancer.”