When you hear "pancreatic cancer," there's a tendency to think the worst. It often is advanced before it's detected, but medical developments are allowing doctors to do more to find and fight it earlier.
Pancreatic cancer starts in the pancreas, an organ that sits in the back of the abdomen behind the stomach and does two major things: produces insulin and other hormones that help with sugar control; and produces digestive enzymes that flow through a series of ducts to the intestines, where they help digest fatty foods.
The third-leading cause of cancer death in America, it's slightly more common in men than women. Each year, more than 60,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with this disease.
6 Myths about pancreatic cancer
Myth 1: Only people with a family history of pancreatic cancer get it.
Truth: “Most cases are sporadic and don’t result from a genetic predisposition to the disease, meaning most commonly, no one else in the person’s family has had pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Gusani. “Common risk factors include advanced age, smoking, diabetes and obesity.”
That said, there are a few familial or genetic syndromes that predispose a person to pancreatic cancer, so if cancers run in your family, it’s important to ask your doctors about screening. Additionally, anyone who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer should consider genetic evaluation and screening to see if there is a higher likelihood of this disease in their family.
Myth 2: There is only one kind of pancreatic cancer.
Truth: There are several subtypes of pancreatic cancer. Different cells make up the pancreas and each of these can become a cancerous tumor. The most common type of pancreatic cancer is pancreatic ductal cancer, or adenocarcinoma, which stems from the gland and duct cells of the organ. The other major type is a neuroendocrine tumor, which arises from the nerve and hormone cells.
Celebrities who have been diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma include Alex Trebek, Aretha Franklin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Patrick Swayze, Pavarotti and most recently, Jerry Springer. Those who have had neuroendocrine tumors include Steve Jobs and Maria Menounos.
Myth 3: You can get screened for pancreatic cancer.
Truth: Unfortunately, there are no screening tests for pancreatic cancer.
“Researchers are actively trying to develop these tools, but we currently don’t have a way to look at the average person and know whether he or she has pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Gusani said.
In certain high-risk populations, like those with a genetic predisposition to developing the disease including African Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, advanced imaging studies can be done to look for early-stage cancers. Also, if you have new-onset diabetes with weight loss, you can be considered for pancreatic cancer evaluation.
Myth 4: All pancreatic cancer is treated the same way.
Truth: Just as every patient is unique, pancreatic cancers have their own distinct elements and can be treated in a variety of ways. For patients with pancreatic adenocarcinoma which is confined to the pancreas, treatment includes a combination of chemotherapy and surgery, sometimes adding radiation to the mix.
“We are moving the chemotherapy upfront more and waiting to do surgery after treating and hopefully shrinking the tumor,” Dr. Gusani said. “For advanced forms where the disease has spread to other organs, we generally only do chemotherapy. Even then, there are several different regimens and new drugs being tested and approved all the time.”
Myth 5: Surgery will make the cancer spread.
Truth: It's a common myth that any type of surgery will result in the spread of cancer because of air hitting the tumor.
“This is not true, and the reason this is so commonly believed is that cancer can spread insidiously, often getting into the blood or belly cavity (peritoneum) very early in the course of the disease. Too often, it spreads into these areas in the form of small tumors all around which are very hard to detect by the usual tests, such as CT scans, MRIs or PET scans. We often find spread of tumors during or after surgery because our eyes and cameras are better at detecting these things than imaging studies. But these tumors were probably present and growing all along.”
Myth 6: Pancreatic cancer isn’t treatable.
Truth: “Unfortunately, the overall prognosis is poor, which has led to a lot of skepticism and negativity in the general public and medical community,” Dr. Gusani said. “People think the treatments are worse than the disease itself and there are no good choices, but that’s not true. At every stage, we can offer options to treat the disease, improve symptoms and often prolong survival.”
Patients should seek options and get an opinion about which approach is right for them. There are more treatments available today and doctors can often cure pancreatic cancer when found at early stages.
How can you reduce your risk? Stop smoking, eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and maintain a healthy weight.