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Pancreatic Cancer: Why You Should No Longer Think It's A Death Sentence

Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK
Pancreatic cancer cell.

Cancer of the pancreas – an organ that lies behind the lower part of your stomach - accounts for only two percent of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year. But it’s the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. 

Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early. And many patients aren’t made aware of advancements in surgery that could help. 

Dr. Rohan Jeyarajah with the surgical oncology program at Methodist Dallas Medical Center talked about this with Sam Baker for KERA’s consumer health series, Vital Signs.

From Dr. Jeyarajah’s interview…

How pancreatic cancer develops… “Pancreatic cancer develops within one group of cells within that pancreas because there’s two functions of that pancreas. One is that it produces enzymes that help with digestion, and the other function is that it produces hormones. For example, things like insulin. The most common form of pancreatic cancer comes from the group of cells that produces enzymes.”

Why it’s often not diagnosed until an advanced stage… “Tumors in the head of the pancreas tend to present a little bit earlier because they actually block the bile duct and you turn yellow. The problem with the body and the tail of the pancreas is you present only when you have fairly advanced signs and symptoms usually related to abdominal pain. Often, we need a CAT scan to figure out what we’re dealing with.”

Advancements in surgical treatment… “Back in the '70s and '80s, the mortality (rate) from taking out the head part of the pancreas was somewhere in the 25 percent range. Now, we at Methodist (Dallas Medical Center) have a mortality that is under two percent, which is right on par or better than most other institutions in the country. It’s really some of the things that we do in the operating room, some of the tools that are available. We have some automation of devices that help; one of the energy devices we have that control bleeding; techniques we have to actually replace blood vessels which we could not do before. And then some minimally invasive techniques that have come on to the market that are advancements, but we have to be very careful in using and very thoughtfully.”

Why many patients aren’t given that option of surgery… “There is a lot of preconceived notions that – and this is among doctors, too -  ‘The patient has pancreatic cancer. Why bother doing anything further because the outcomes are so poor?’ But we do have survivors.”

For more information:

What is Pancreatic Cancer? 

Pancreatic Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment 

Types of Pancreatic Cancer 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.