Pancreatic cancer is a rare cancer with a low survival rate. Its well-known victims include Apple founder Steve Jobs, actors Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, composer Henry Mancini, and Nobel laureate Ralph Steinman.
Genetic Factors for Pancreatic Cancer – You May Want to Check Your DNA
Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European origin) such as Ralph Steinman and Justice Ginsburg are more prone to the disease because of inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer genes in some families. The risk varies in different families and has been attributed to differences in vulnerability to the risk factors. If you want to check your heritage to see if you might be at an increased risk, check out www.ancestry.com to see what your DNA makeup is. Data from the Israeli Ministry of Health, released in February 2017, revealed that Ashkenazi Jews are four times more likely to develop the cancer than Sephardic Jews (Jews of African or Asian descent). Researchers have not discovered the reason for this distinction
Inherited mutations in the BRCA1 breast cancer gene increase the risk of getting a number of cancers. About one and a half percent of Ashkenazi Jews have inherited mutations. The risk level associated with BRCA1 mutations is about the same as that associated with smoking.
Every cell in the body has two copies of the BRCA2 breast cancer gene. The breast cancer gene BRCA2 is inherited from both sides of the family in each person. About one percent of Ashkenazi Jews have inherited the mutation, which also raises the risk of several types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.
Testing for Pancreatic Cancer
Reliable tests have not been developed to identify this cancer yet. But, it can be discovered at an early stage. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s tumor was discovered early during her annual checkup.
When it was identified, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s tumor was only one centimeter long – the smallest size detectable by a scan. As scans do not identify whether a tumor is cancerous, it is best to remove it. Justice Ginsburg was promptly operated on for the removal of her tumor.
Low Survival Rate
Pancreatic cancer’s mortality rate is extremely high because less than 20 percent of the tumors, at the time of diagnosis, remain in the pancreas. By this time, the malignancy has typically progressed so far that surgical removal is not possible. According to the American Cancer Society, the overall five-year survival rate is seven percent.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Several factors affect the likelihood of getting the cancer. Some factors can be avoided. The risk factors that can be changed are: weight, tobacco use, and exposure to certain chemicals at work.
Among the risk factor that cannot be changed are race, gender, age (most patients are over 45 years of age), family history, inherited genetic mutations (changes), diabetes, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), cirrhosis of the liver, and stomach infection (or even excess stomach acid) that raise the potential for becoming afflicted.
About 95 percent do not live five years past discovery and most die within months of their diagnosis. Symptoms include clay colored stool and dark urine, tiredness and weakness, nausea, weight loss, jaundice and stomach pain. It strikes older people more often.
Not Easy to Identify with Imaging Technology
Positioned deep inside the body cavity, the pancreas is difficult to image. A combination of inability to image in advance and the absence of early symptoms make it hard to diagnose in time. To make matters worse, no existing drug is an effective remedy for late stage pancreatic cancer. As a result, this lethal cancer has a five-year survival rate of six percent. A global tally revealed that 227,000 people had died by 2010 from among 232,000 diagnosed in 2002. Approximately 40,000 people succumb to the disease each year.
A study has revealed that distant metastasis, or in other words, its spread to other parts of the body occurs late in the genetic evolution of this disease. This means early detection is vital to prevent death. Research has also revealed that as the cancer takes hold, the body emits a distress signal. This takes the form of an excessive production of mesothelin, which is a type of protein. So far there is no certain way to locate this signal during a physical checkup. The optimal way, in the opinion of medical professionals, would be to detect mesothelin in a blood test.
More People Diagnosed Globally
More people are succumbing globally. Changing dietary preferences and habits have coincided with increasing global incidence. As people adopt more unhealthy habits commonly associated with the Western diet, they have become more prone to this disease. Diabetes, smoking, chronic inflammation and hereditary genetic syndromes are known risk factors.
Steve Jobs Stricken by Rare Form of the Cancer
Unlike many sufferers, Steve Jobs was stricken by a rarer form of this cancer which strikes less than five percent of sufferers. Its less aggressive nature enabled him to live longer than most people.
Treatment Varies with Time of Discovery
The course of treatment depends on when pancreatic cancer is discovered. If a tumor is suspected a laparoscopy is performed. If the biopsy is positive, removal of the tissue is the best solution. But, it is suitable only for one of five patients. Because discovery is typically at an advanced stage, very few tumors can be surgically removed.
When surgery is recommended, chances are better when the operation is done at a hospital with greater experience in this type of surgery. Studies have suggested hospitals that do more than five a year are better choices. If the tumor has not spread outside the gland and it cannot be removed by radiation, chemotherapy may be recommended. When the tumor has spread to other organs, chemotherapy is normally used by itself.
Whereas chemotherapy and radiotherapy help to reduce the pain and to shrink tumors, they cannot cure the condition. Targeted anticancer drugs are also used to extend lives. Since it is so difficult to survive a diagnosis, we are fortunate pancreatic cancer remains a rare form of cancer.