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Reasons to be Optimistic About Pancreatic Cancer

June 26, 2019

The recent diagnosis of Alex Trebek has once again brought attention to the plight of those with pancreatic cancer. While this disease has a low survival rate, I, like Mr. Trebek, remain optimistic about developments in pancreatic cancer treatment.

I am hopeful about the promise of new therapies and those in clinical trials. Physicians are developing strategies to extend survival using new combinations of existing drugs. Therapies that work with patients’ immune systems to defeat gastrointestinal cancers, including pancreatic cancer, are now available. And there are 54 pancreatic cancer drugs in the pharmaceutical pipeline, including a novel drug our team is testing in conjunction with a New Jersey-based company, Rafael Pharmaceuticals. 

Having worked with hundreds of pancreatic cancer patients and dozens of clinical trials, I know one thing: We will break through. This is truly a time of cautious optimism for people with pancreatic cancer, with an explosion of clinical trials and new treatments, and many more on the horizon.

I tell my pancreatic cancer patients that their best option is to enroll in a clinical trial. Every case of pancreatic cancer is different and responds differently depending on the therapy, on the patient and on the specifics of his or her cancer. It is a matter of finding the right trial for each person’s diagnosis.

Many people are now surviving cancer. While pancreatic cancer remains one of the more difficult cancers to treat, the large number of innovative therapies in the pipeline gives me great hope. We are at a time of transformation in the treatment of pancreatic cancers due to discoveries in genetics, the advent of therapies that work with patients’ immune systems and other novel approaches, such as targeting enzymes within cancer cells that affect their metabolism. Individualized and targeted precision treatments that can hone in on each person’s cancer are on the horizon. We are also testing drugs and drug combinations that have worked in other types of cancer. 

Pancreatic cancer is often detected late due to the lack of clear warning signs. According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, pancreatic cancer may cause only vague, unexplained symptoms. They include: abdominal bloating; pain; digestive problems; jaundice; changes in stool; unexplained weight loss; blood clots, which may cause symptoms such as swelling, pain or tenderness in the affected area; and sudden onset of type 2 diabetes, especially in those with a low body mass index. Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, which account for fewer than 5% of all pancreatic cancers, may cause symptoms such as weight loss, nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness and skin rash.

While not everyone who gets pancreatic cancer has known risk factors, it is important to act to change those risk factors that are within our control. According to the American Cancer Society, modifiable risk factors include: smoking or chewing tobacco; being overweight or obese; and workplace exposure to cancer-causing chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal working. Type 2 diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, stomach problems (H. pylori infection and excess stomach acid) may increase risk. Heavy alcohol use is also risky, because it may lead to chronic pancreatitis or cirrhosis, both of which can cause pancreatic cancer.

Avoiding these risk factors is important but will not guarantee that you won’t get pancreatic cancer. In fact, we do not know what causes this cancer, but we do know what factors may place you at higher risk. We also know that participating in clinical trials may increase your chances of living a longer life. Clinical trials are not just last-chance options; they often provide the best treatment choices. If you have pancreatic cancer, please remain hopeful and make informed treatment decisions. We can fight this.

- Angela Alistar, MD is medical director of GI medical oncology at Morristown Medical Center, Atlantic Health System Cancer Care. 

Source: My Central Jersey