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Pancreatic cancer needs more research and early detection screening

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November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) wants everyone to know that a patient can change the course of the disease through awareness and early detection.

With an overall five-year survival rate of 12%, pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

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Early detection is vital to improving patient outcomes, which is why it is important to know the symptoms.

“I was having lunch with my wife one day, and she said I looked yellow; that’s called jaundice. So, I went to the doctor, and they confirmed I had pancreatic cancer. They found my tumor early. It was operable, and I had chemo,” said Martin Hynes III, a researcher and member of PanCAN.

Hynes was diagnosed in January 2021 with stage 2B pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer in Indiana

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2023 there have been an estimated 1,330 new cases of pancreatic cancer in Indiana alone.

Dr. Paul Helft, oncologist with IU Health, said the most common early symptom of the disease is upper abdominal pain that persists with jaundice.

Jaundice yellows the skin and eyes because of a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream.

This occurs because the liver drainage system is blocked by a growing pancreatic tumor.

“There are more than 60,000 cases of pancreatic cancer diagnoses in the United States every year. So, roughly 85% of patients are diagnosed in a later stage where the tumor has grown so much that it can’t be removed and has already spread,” said Helft.

Hynes said his doctor called him the unlucky lucky because he was able to be operated on and receive chemo treatments.

“Unfortunately, it’s a very insidious disease because it doesn’t cause symptoms most of the time until the cancer has grown, progressed or become incurable,” said Helft.

“If the cancer is found early enough to be removed, then even with the most aggressive treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery, only about 20-25% of patients have long-term survival, meaning they are cured of the cancer.”

He said if the cancer has already spread at the time of diagnosis, then the average survival rate tends to range around 9 to 12 months.

More research and funding

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., after lung and colon cancer, but receives a disproportionally small amount of funding for research.

“Underserved patients have disproportionately negative impact from a disease like pancreatic cancer. They can be diagnosed later; have less access to health care resources, high volume surgeons and centers. It’s a disease where disparities play a big role,” said Helft.

Since his diagnosis, Hynes has started researching the disease and said pushing for simple and affordable blood tests could help people find out if they are at risk for the disease.

He said tests used now are not specific enough to discern if patients have the disease.

“We’re losing too many people far too young to this disease. I want people to adhere to the warning signs and take the necessary actions to save their lives,” said Hynes.

Dr. John Cardinal, hepatobiliary surgeon with Community North Hospital, said initial symptoms can also be very vague and mistaken for other issues.

Indianapolis’ PurpleLight event

“Oftentimes I’ll have a lot of patients who come to see me especially with a little bit more of a delayed diagnosis. They’ll tell me they went to the doctor five months ago cause their stomach was hurting, and they’ll send them for a colonoscopy that didn’t show anything,” said Cardinal.

“Then the next thing you know they sent them to an ultrasound that didn’t show anything. Then they go for blood tests that didn’t show anything, and eventually someone gets around to ordering a CT scan or an MRI, and that’s the test.”

He also agrees that there are not a lot of specific screenings for the disease.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network will wear purple on World Pancreatic Cancer Day, Thursday, Nov. 16.

Indianapolis’ PurpleLight event is Sunday, Nov. 12, 4:00 p.m., at the Cancer Support Community Center, 5150 W. 71st St.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON

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