The recent passing of longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek came during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, which is meant to shine a spotlight on the same disease that took his life. Trebek certainly wasn’t alone in his battle. It’s estimated there will be 57,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in the United States this year.
“Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive form of cancer,” says Bret Schipper, MD, Chief of Surgical Oncology at The Hospital of Central Connecticut and Director of Oncologic Surgery for the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. “An unfortunate aspect of pancreatic cancer is that the five-year survival rate is still very low, at only about 10 percent of patients. And unlike most cancers, the survival rate hasn’t gotten any better in the last decade.”
What makes pancreatic cancer difficult to treat is that it’s often not detected in the early stages, and once someone starts to display symptoms the cancer is most likely advanced or spreading into other parts of the body.
“Pancreatic cancer isn’t easily detectable or screened for – there’s no test like we have for colon cancer or breast cancer. So it’s not until a tumor starts to develop and someone has symptoms, which will often lead to a work up and CT scan and then they’re diagnosed,” Dr. Schipper explains.
Some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
• painless jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
• weight loss
• nausea and vomiting
• diarrhea/loose stools
• clay colored stools
• dark urine
• mid-abdominal pain going to the back.
“If you’re experiencing some of these symptoms, your first call should be to your primary care physician to get evaluated. They can run some basic work ups and then if they find a lesion in your pancreas you’re typically referred to a surgeon,” says Schipper. “General abdominal pain can be caused by lots of things so I wouldn’t jump straight to assuming it’s pancreatic cancer. However, if you are having pain and also experiencing jaundice, you do not want to ignore that. Make an appointment to see your doctor.”
Dr. Schipper says that treatment for pancreatic cancer can involve surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. It all depends on the stage, location and type of pancreatic cancer a patient has been diagnosed with. It’s still unclear what causes pancreatic cancer to develop, but experts say the risk factors may include smoking, new onset diabetes in adults, obesity or a family history of the disease.
Hartford HealthCare has put a tremendous focus on the treatment and care of this type of cancer. “We have a multi-disciplinary hepatobiliary conference where all new pancreatic cancers are presented to a team of medical experts and together we come up with a consensus on treatment. Patients have their own personalized treatment plans based on their diagnosis,” said Dr. Schipper.
Dr. Bret Schipper is the Chief of Surgical Oncology at The Hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center. He’s also the Director of Oncologic Surgery at the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. For more information about cancer care, visit www.hartfordhealthcare.org/cancer or call 855.255.6181.