Report: Deadly pancreatic cancer is on the rise

 

Orlando Sentinel

Almost always deadly and steadily on the rise, pancreatic cancer is on track to become the second-leading cause of cancer death in the nation within the next two years, according to a recent report.

Currently the fourth-leading cancer killer — claiming, among others, Apple founder Steve Jobs at age 56 — pancreatic cancer will likely surpass breast, prostate and colorectal cancers to rank behind only lung cancer, the No. 1 cancer killer, said the report from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The higher ranking is partly because risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer are trending up, while deaths from the other top cancer killers are trending down, said Dr. Bose Debashish, a pancreatic-cancer surgeon at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando.

The incidence of pancreatic cancer has been rising 1.5 percent each year since 2004, according to the American Cancer Society. At the current rate, one in every 71 Americans will develop the disease in his or her lifetime.

One of the risk factors fueling the upward trend is Americans’ lengthening lifespans. Nearly 90 percent of pancreatic-cancer patients are older than 55, and more than 70 percent are older than 65, according to the cancer society.

Increasing rates of obesity and diabetes also contribute to the rising trend. So does smoking, which doubles or triples risk, said Debashish.

What also distinguishes this killer is that it’s the only top cancer with a survival rate in the single digits: Only 6 percent of those who get it are alive in five years.

“Everyone who gets pancreatic cancer will likely die of it,” said Debashish.

A few, like Alicia Decker of Oviedo, get lucky. Two years ago, the 34-year-old pharmacist and mother of two young children felt a pain in her side. She tried to ignore it but finally went to the emergency room.

A scan turned up something suspicious on her pancreas. That was the bad news.

“My first thought was, ‘I’m going to die,’ ” said Decker, who didn’t have any of the risk factors. Though overweight, she was not obese. She did not have diabetes, had never smoked and had no family history of the cancer.

The good news was that the lesion appeared to be “on its way to becoming cancer,” meaning it wasn’t too late.

Debashish operated and removed part of Decker’s pancreas. Today, she is healthy, active and cancer-free.

Debashish wishes he could nip more pancreatic lesions before they become cancer, but this type of cancer usually stays under the radar until it’s advanced.

“We used to believe that pancreatic cancer was very aggressive and very fast,” he said. “But that’s not true. It actually moves slowly, and we’re bad at detecting it. If you put the disease on a 100-point scale, with zero being when the first cancer cell shows up, we’re catching it at 90.”

By the time this silent cancer presents with symptoms, he said, 85 percent of patients are not candidates for surgical correction.

Complicating treatment further, tumors in the pancreas — an essential organ responsible for producing insulin and aiding digestion — don’t respond well to available chemotherapy agents.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include jaundice (which causes the skin to turn yellow), dark urine, a chalky stool, pain in the abdomen above the navel and unexplained weight loss, said Debashish. Some astute physicians spot the disease when a normal-weight patient presents with sudden-onset diabetes, he said.

Currently, the best hope lies in helping the 15 percent of patients who could benefit from a pancreatic resection to get it — and today only about half do.

“We are actually under-treating pancreatic cancer patients who have operable disease,” he said.

Even patients whose cancers are borderline inoperable can convert to surgical candidates after treating the tumor with radiation and chemo.

“With quick, appropriate intervention,” Debashish said, “we can raise the grim 6 percent survival rate.”

Read more Health stories from the Miami Herald

  • Ask Nancy

    How to choose an assisted living facility

    Q. I live in California and have a formerly independent, elderly father in Tamarac, who is deteriorating following a mild stroke and is becoming an increasing burden for his partner, who lives with him. He has an extensive support network of friends in South Florida and doesn't wish to relocate to California, where my brother and I could more easily support him. I need to find an assisted living facility (ALF) for him in the Tamarac area. I certainly intend to travel to Tamarac and inspect the facilities personally, but it would help me a great deal to have a starting point.

  • Legislature 2014

    Florida House votes to regulate e-cigarette sales

    State lawmakers took significant steps to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors.

  • Sleep

    To sleep well, adjust what you eat — and when

    Sleep. Oh, to sleep. A good night’s sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults. And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category