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Deadly Pancreatic Cancer Needs More Attention

It’s the big four – breast, colon, prostate and lung cancer.

These are the cancers that you always hear about at community fundraising events.

But there are thousands of people suffering from cancers that are often much more deadly and get far less research funding.

Pancreatic cancer is a great example of this phenomenon.

This type of cancer is as common as leukemia, yet most people couldn’t tell you much about it. The disease also has a higher fatality rate than all other cancers – 99 percent, which means just 380 of the 32,180 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States this year will survive.In spite of this shocking statistic, pancreatic cancer research receives just 1 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s more than $4.8 billion budget.

Clearly there is a critical need for more effective drug treatments, early detection and prevention programs. And the only way that can happen is with increased community awareness and more research.

In November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, those of us engaged in the daily battle against this deadly disease have an opportunity to renew our efforts through community education, the best means we know to drive research funding and make progress possible.

Here is just part of the important message that clinicians and scientists working with pancreatic cancer would like to get across.

The pancreas has two important functions in the body: it produces juices that help the body digest food, and hormones that help control blood-sugar levels. Cancerous tumors often form in the area where the bile duct crosses from the intestine into the pancreas.

Tucked deep in the abdomen, the pancreas is difficult to screen because pancreatic tumors cannot easily be felt or seen.

If diagnosed early, however, the cancerous portion of the pancreas can be surgically removed and rerouted. Unfortunately, most cases are diagnosed in advanced stages.

Because of this, it is critically important for people to know the warning signs of pancreatic cancer and proactively seek medical treatment before the disease progresses. Common symptoms include jaundice (yellow color in eyes and skin), chronic abdominal pain, sudden weight loss and extreme body weakness.

People also need to understand their risk factors. Smokers are up to three times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than nonsmokers. In fact, 30 percent of pancreas cancers are directly related to a history of smoking. Men are 30 percent more likely to develop the disease than women – especially those over age 60. You’re also at increased risk for the disease if you are obese, diabetic or have a family history of pancreatic cancer.

pancreas picAt the University of Cincinnati Pancreatic Disease Center, we are investigating cutting-edge technologies and therapies that make survival more realistic. Our team is one of just a small handful across the nation focusing exclusively on gastrointestinal and pancreatic diseases.

We’re making progress against the disease, but not fast enough. Recent research has given us a better understanding of pancreas cancer at the molecular level, which has led to newer biologic drugs designed to target specific molecules on the pancreas cancer cells.

These drugs are showing progress in early clinical trials, but until we – as a nation – can make a substantial investment in pancreatic cancer research, we will only make marginal progress.

As we enter the presidential election year, I urge Greater Cincinnatians to contact your senators and push for a national commitment to increase cancer research funding. You can also make a difference in pancreas cancer awareness by spreading the word to your family and friends or getting involved with the Pancreas Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org.)

Dr. Syed Ahmad is a surgical oncologist with the University of Cincinnati Department of Surgery, UC Pancreatic Disease Center (www.ucpancreas.org).