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Friday, November 20, 2020

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month


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By Dr. Jennifer Chuy, medical oncologist at Montefiore Health System and assistant professor, Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine


As our nation mourned the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, another legend, Jeopardy host Alex Trebek also recently succumbed to pancreatic cancer this month.


Pancreatic cancer is the ninth most common cancer in men and the eighth most common cancer in women in the United States. More than 57,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year in the United States. In New York alone, 3,700 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and 2,900 people will die of the disease annually. Despite advances in treatment, five-year survival rates remain at 9%.  


What is the pancreas?


The pancreas is an organ located behind the stomach. It releases enzymes to help digest food and produces hormones, such as insulin to control sugar levels in the blood.


What causes pancreatic cancer?


Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

-smoking

-obesity

-chronic inflammation (pancreatitis)

-older age

-family history


Up to 10% of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses are associated with an inherited syndrome. One important example is the hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, associated with mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (genes that have been found to impact a person's chances of developing breast cancer).  

Lynch Syndrome, also known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, is associated with genetic mutations that affect a person's ability to repair damaged DNA and may also increase one's risk of developing pancreatic cancer. If you or your family member are concerned about your family history of cancer, you should ask your doctor if genetic testing is right for you.


What steps can you take to protect yourself and loved ones?


Stop smoking and lead a healthy lifestyle with a diet low in fat and engage in regular physical activity.

Pancreatic cancer is often difficult to diagnose because signs and symptoms tend to be nonspecific and a routine physical exam and blood work may not detect the condition early on. You should call your doctor if you have non intentional weight loss, persistent abdominal or worsening abdominal pain that radiates to the back, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and/or skin), dark-colored urine, light-colored stools, new onset diabetes, unusual bloating, or new onset diarrhea, especially with fatty foods. Your doctor can order a blood test or scan and make a referral to a gastroenterologist to see if you need further evaluation.


What treatment options are available?


Depending on the stage of pancreatic cancer, people may be offered chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. In a small group of people, immunotherapy and targeted therapy may also be an option. It is important to find a cancer center where care is coordinated closely by a team of providers who specialize in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.  


Where can I find more information about pancreatic cancer and clinical trials?


Clinical trials are an important way to provide access to new and promising treatments that may not yet be available to the rest of the general population. This is especially important for pancreatic cancer where we are in desperate need for more effective therapies.  


May the legacies of RBG and Alex Trebek live on and may new therapies on the horizon bring hope to all those afflicted.


I have listed the online resources below to provide additional information about pancreatic cancer.


Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

pancan.org

American Cancer Society

cancer.org

American Society of Clinical Oncology

cancer.net

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