November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
At a time when overall cancer survival rates are rising and patient outcomes are improving, pancreatic cancer remains a stubborn outlier.
More people than ever before, an estimated 62,210 Americans, were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year (2022). The average lifetime risk is now 1.5%, after decades at 1%.
The Bad News
What’s not rising? Survival rates. Pancreatic cancer is now the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Wisconsin and the third deadliest in the U.S. The five-year survival rate is approximately 10% across all stages.
The Good News
The UW Carbone Cancer Center is working to turn those trends around. Researchers launched the Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program in Madison in February 2020 to expand research options and improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients. Even through the pandemic, their relentless commitment to the cause continued.
What They’ve Found
Early detection and prevention are the keys to pancreatic cancer. The problem, however, is that the pancreas is so hidden that detection is incredible difficult.
What to Look For
Stomach pain, back pain, and nausea are the first signs of pancreatic cancer. They’re not unique to pancreatic cancer specifically, but they are valid reasons to visit your doctor. Stronger signs like jaundice, dark urine, and light-colored stools often only appear once a tumor has grown large enough to block the body’s bile duct. Simply put: the cancer has spread and it’s harder to treat.
Researchers are now racing to find a biomarker for pancreatic cancer: something that would show up in a blood or urine test. Like the PSA test for prostate cancer, researchers are working to find something similar for pancreatic cancer.
Why It’s Important
“We need that marker in the blood or urine that shows up ideally before a tumor becomes invasive and spreads,” Dr. Rebecca Minter, chair of the department of surgery at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, explained. “We’re looking for something that’s shed from the primary tumor, or even better a precursor legion, that can be detected before the primary tumor spreads someplace else.”