November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and is the only one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers with a five-year relative survival rate in the single digits, at just six percent. Projections based on the changing demographics of the U.S. population and changes in incidence and death rates reveal the startling observation that pancreatic cancer is anticipated to move to the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. by 2020.
The pancreas is a large gland located behind the stomach and next to the small intestine. The organ is responsible for releasing powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to aid the digestion of food and releasing the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas develop mutations in their DNA. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and to continue living after normal cells would die. These accumulating cells can then form a tumor.
Last year, pancreatic cancer moved from the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. to the third, surpassing breast cancer. It is one of the deadliest cancers, with 71 percent of patients will dying within the first year of diagnosis. One of the reasons for the high death rate associated with the disease is the fact that there are currently no proven biomarkers or clues detectable in blood or other bodily fluids, which could indicate the presence of a pancreatic tumor. The result is that the vast majority of pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed in later stage.
Depending on the type and stage of the cancer and other factors, treatment options for people with pancreatic cancer can include surgery, ablation or embolization treatments, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or other drugs. At the Radiation Oncology Services at Charleston Area Medical Center, we use a form of radiation therapy called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) to treat pancreatic cancer painlessly and without surgery.
EBRT, which is an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer, works within cancer cells to damage their ability to multiply. During treatment, high-energy X-rays are delivered to the cancer with a linear accelerator (LINAC). Treatments are delivered daily Monday through Friday and each treatment only takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The treatment process is safe and will not burn or hurt you. Side effects are usually minimal, and most patients return to routine activities immediately after each treatment. Several factors determine candidacy for radiation therapy treatment including the stage of the cancer, potential side effects, age and overall health. Sometimes a combination of treatments is the best plan for treating pancreatic cancer, particularly when the cancer has spread and grown beyond the pancreas. Radiation therapy may also be delivered as a palliative treatment to relieve symptoms, such as pain, in patients with advanced disease.
If you, or a loved one, have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and would like to speak to a patient coordinator about your treatment options, please contact the Radiation Oncology Services at Charleston Area Medical Center today.