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A silent killer, pancreatic cancer can be treated with early detection

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“November” naturally conjures thoughts of family, cool weather and comfort food. But November is important for another reason; it is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, represented by purple ribbons of hope.

Cancer in the crescent-shaped organ between the stomach and liver is relatively uncommon. But pancreatic cancer is expected to become the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in America within a decade. It is often called a silent killer because most patients are diagnosed with advanced disease. It is also frequently a forgotten cancer; funding for research into the causes and treatments of pancreatic is a tiny fraction of funding for all cancer research.

The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown but identified risks include smoking, diabetes and being very overweight. In a few cases, pancreatic cancer has been linked to inherited genetic mutations.

Currently no screening tests are available and early, curable pancreatic cancer has few symptoms, which is why the disease is found only after it has spread to nearby structures and cannot be removed by surgery. Symptoms of advanced tumors include fatigue, feeling full after eating small meals, weight loss, upper abdomen or mid-back pain and skin yellowing. Chemo- and radiation therapy can slow cancer growth, relieve symptoms and help patients live longer than if they received no treatment.

Diagnosing pancreatic cancer depends on patients seeking medical care for suspicious symptoms that persist and having imaging at facilities with the technology and expertise to recognize sometimes subtle changes on CT scans. Dr. Jeff Jones, a radiologist with the cancer program at Wilson Medical Center, notes that “Wilson Medical Center has state of-the-art equipment for evaluating and diagnosing cancer in the pancreas as early as a patient offers suspicious symptoms.”

When someone is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it is important to seek medical care with a team of experienced surgical, medical and radiation oncology physicians and nurses. Dr. Keith Lerro,a medical oncologist at Wilson Medical Center with experience managing pancreatic cancer, acknowledges that “The earlier a patient can be diagnosed, the more likely treatments are to be successful. We are working with the Duke Cancer Network to bring clinical trials for diseases like pancreatic cancer to Wilson Medical Center to offer patients with this deadly disease hope.”

Melanie Thomas, M.D., is a physician in the Duke Cancer Network. Linda M. Sutton, M.D., is the Duke Cancer Network’s chief medical officer.

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