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What You & Your Family Need to know about Pancreatic Cancer

November 17, 2009

The following article was written in the LA Times in September shortly after Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer.

The article is filled with up to date information you and your family should be aware of.  Pancreatic cancer is a silent killer.  Symptoms of the disease are vague, which is why it is usually detected only it its advanced stages.

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month.

With Patrick Swayze’s death today comes a highly public reminder that the cure rate for pancreatic cancer is abysmal. This year, an estimated 42,470 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease. And an estimated 35,240 will die.

Smoking can increase risk, as can obesity, diabetes, family history and other factors. But there simply aren’t obvious signs of the disease in its early stages, and detection can often come too late. (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer earlier this year; hers was indeed caught fairly early.)

The disease is broken down into two basic types: exocrine tumors and endocrine tumors, as the American Cancer Society explains. Exocrine tumors are the most common and are usually malignant. Endocrine tumors are much more rare and the malignancy rate is more complex. (Steve Jobs was diagnosed with the endocrine type several years ago.)

The National Cancer Institute offers a good overview of the disease. Of special note, it includes a link to clinical trials.

Besides studying genetic factors and trying to improve detection, researchers are trying to improve the effectiveness of the drugs now commonly used to treat cancer of the pancreas — and to devise new therapies as well.

Here’s an overview of new treatment approaches, according to the American Cancer Society. Included targeted therapies that attack only specific types of  cells or vessels, immune therapies that bolster the body’s ability to fight the disease and more.

Similarly, the Lustgarten Foundation offers descriptions of the Pancreatic Cancer Genome Project and the Pancreatic Cancer Biomarker Initiative specifically. The former identified specific mutations and signaling pathways and is expected to shape research for years to come. The latter aims to find new detection and screening options.

For a truly impressive, or inspiring, database, there’s this list of pancreatic cancer researchers and their projects, via the Pancreatic Cancer Research Map. It’s searchable by investigator, area of research, state, etc.

And, for a sample of recent research into pancreatic cancer, the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at Johns Hopkins University offers a selection of presentations.

All of which is to say, the work continues.

— Tami Dennis

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