Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, and is currently the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. In fact, for all stages combined, the 5-year relative survival rate of the disease is only 11%. This year alone, an estimated 62,610 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and nearly 50,000 are pass away from the disease.
In honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we sat down with Dr. Claudius Conrad, Chief of Surgical Oncology at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, Massachusetts, and a world-renowned expert in minimally-invasive cancer treatment procedures, to explore some of the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer, the available treatment options, and how we can best support patients coping with this diagnosis. With training at Harvard Medical School and other global centers of expertise, Dr. Conrad specializes in cutting-edge techniques and therapies to treat liver, pancreatic, and biliary tract cancer cases that few others can.
What are the most common warning signs of pancreatic cancer?
The most common side effects of pancreatic cancer are jaundice, or skin turning yellow, severe abdominal pain, or difficulty digesting food. Research studies also suggest that the onset of diabetes may be an early symptom of pancreatic cancer. If the cancer develops on the tail of the pancreas, however, the cancer often presents very few symptoms, making it difficult to catch and treat.
Are there any groups that are at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer?
A genetic predisposition to pancreatic cancer and smoking are the two most important risk factors to be aware of when it comes to pancreatic cancer.
What steps can people take to diagnose pancreatic cancer early?
Important research is currently being done to create a sensitive and specific lab test for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which should be widely available in the near future. For now, if patients present any of the common symptoms of pancreatic cancer– jaundice, digestive problems, onset of diabetes– they should immediately schedule a visit to see their physician and receive the proper testing.
What treatment options are available for pancreatic cancer?
All patients who are planning on undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer should be considered for what we call neoadjuvant chemotherapy, or pre-operation rounds of chemotherapy. As of now, that is the standard treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Do you have any tips for supporting a loved one with a diagnosis?
When I diagnose patients with pancreatic cancer, their life has just been terribly changed– they feel hopeless and ask, “Why is this happening to me?” or “What did I do wrong?” Patients need to know that they didn’t do anything wrong. Loved ones can support patients by encouraging them not to lose hope and to move forward, get treatment, see a pancreatic cancer expert, and consider surgery.
What is Steward doing to deliver and promote preventive care among the communities it serves?
Steward has a strong focus on helping underprivileged communities access great care. Through our excellent cancer registrar, we are trying to identify patient populations and areas in our system that do need increased awareness. Today, standardized preventive care for pancreatic cancer has not been established. However, we do have a strong smoking cessation program that is strongly correlated with pancreatic cancer development.
We’re also doing research – like this study, for example – that looks at identifying factors associated with disparity in cancer care including pancreatic cancer.
Steward is here to support you along your journey. Start a conversation with your local doctor today by using our DoctorFinder or calling 800-488-5959.
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