The death last week of Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs has focused attention on pancreatic cancer, a very deadly and painful form of cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 44,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in 2011. The disease is considered largely incurable with a one-year survival rate of 20 percent.
Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, a gland in the abdomen that produces insulin and other hormones. It also produces chemicals that help the body digest food. Malignant tumors invade the tissue around the cells and may spread to other parts of the body. Pancreatic cancer can metastasize, or travel to another organ or area in the body, before it is diagnosed.
The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research states the number one preventable cause of pancreatic cancer is smoking. Some accounts report smokers are two to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers. The majority of cases develop in individuals ages 60-80 and the disease is more common in men than women. People with chronic pancreatitis may also have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
In the early stages, pancreatic cancer is extremely hard to detect as there are often no symptoms. Symptoms that develop later may include pain in the upper abdomen or upper back, yellow skin and eyes, dark urine, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting or weight loss.
If you think you may be at risk for the disease you should consult your family physician. He or she may prescribe lab tests, a CT scan, ultrasound or other tests to help diagnose the disease. Your physician may also refer you to an endocrinologist such as Dr. Chih Chang at Pikeville Medical Center.
An endocrinologist specializes in and has advanced knowledge of diseases of the pancreas and other glands in the body.
“Pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate, but treatments have been approved in the last two years that have doubled survivability,” said Dr. Bharat Jenigiri, oncologist and palliative care specialist at Pikeville Medical Center. “A new more aggressive form of chemotherapy has been approved, and the mean survival rate is much better than it used to be.”
During treatment patients may also elect to begin palliative care, a treatment option that can help relieve pain from serious illnesses.
“ Patients suffer from pain with pancreatic cancer. Palliative care helps relieve the pain associated with the disease and even some of the other issues like nausea and constant hiccups. We have seen good survival in some of our patients who utilize chemo and radiation therapy along with palliative care,” Dr. Jenigiri added.
Palliative care incorporates traditional treatment for diseases like pancreatic cancer with the specialized care that allows some patients to continue on with everyday life. A palliative care team typically includes a physician, nurse practitioner, case manager, social worker and chaplain.
For more information about pancreatic cancer or palliative care, contact Pikeville Medical Center’s Leonard Lawson Cancer Center at 606-218-4722.