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HEALTH Matters® Blog

Early Detection is Key to Stopping Pancreatic Cancer

POSTED BY Dr. Joshua Raff, Oncologist
November 11, 2020  
The recent death of popular game show host Alex Trebek has focused attention on pancreatic cancer.

The recent death of popular “Jeopardy!” game show host Alex Trebek ended his much publicized 20-month diagnosis living with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Perhaps part of his legacy will not only be that he survived twice as long as expected, but that he also inspired public awareness about pancreatic cancer, a silent killer with symptoms that can go unnoticed until it has already spread throughout the body. Early detection remains an important strategy against pancreatic cancer, and the sooner it is discovered, the more like there can be a better outcome.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 56,770 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed this year, with an estimated 45,750 deaths expected nationwide. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the country in both men and women.

The pancreas is an organ located deep witin the abdomen. It plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into fuel for the body's cells. The pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar.

Trebek’s passing reminds us that current, standard therapies for pancreatic cancer are often inadequate, and that more research into newer treatment approaches are needed. In addition, we believe that early detection may increase chances for survival. Other prominent figures have recently succumbed to the disease, including Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who died in July, only months after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Johns Hopkins Medicine has reported that five-year survival rates approach 25% if the cancers are surgically removed while they are still small and have not spread to the lymph nodes.

Cancers that start in the head of the pancreas are small and grow in a very crowded anatomical space, which can sometimes lead to these tumors being detected at an early stage. People affected by cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas, however, might have more of a chance to spread before showing symptoms.

Typically, there are several warning signs, the first being jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin. Other common symptoms include stomach pain and sudden weight loss. Some symptoms can be caused by a tumor pressing on the stomach or other parts of the digestive system as it spreads These may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating or swelling in the abdomen
  • Fatigue

Emphasizing the need for early detection, White Plains Hospital established a clinical trial for individuals at risk for pancreatic cancer in 2014. Individuals eligible for the trial include people with multiple affected family members, family members under age 50, and those who are genetically predisposed to the disease (for example, carriers of the BRCA mutation). Individuals enrolled in the program are offered testing with endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) of the pancreas, alternating with an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of the pancreas, and follow-up testing and monitoring every 6-12 months for up to five years. Lean more about our clinical trials program or call (914) 849-7582.

Raff-Joshua-WPHPA.jpgDr. Joshua Raff is a medical oncologist and Assistant Director of the Colorectal Cancer Program at WPH. To make an appointment, call (914) 849-7600.

Tags: Alex Trebek, cancer, early detection, fatigue, jaundice, stomach pain
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