SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Pancreatic cancer impacts about 55,000 people in the United States each year and is the fourth leading cancer-related cause of death for men and women, says Memorial Health radiation oncologist Dr. Michael Hasselle.
“Sometimes I think of it as a forgotten cancer because it has a really high mortality rate, but it’s not one we talk about that much,” Hasselle told WSAV NOW.
The medical expert works at Memorial Health’s Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute, which treats about 60 pancreatic cancer patients annually.
“You hear people talk about breast, lung, prostate and colorectal cancers all the time, but you don’t hear people talk about pancreatic cancer as much, despite it being one of the top five causes of cancer deaths,” Hasselle said.
In March 2019, longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek publicly began sharing his journey following his own pancreatic cancer diagnosis, helping shed light on the often fatal disease.
This type of cancer’s overall survival rate is only 9%.
The beloved 80-year-old game show host lost his stage-four battle on Nov. 8, 2020, during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
How pancreatic cancer affects the body
“The pancreas is an organ that’s located in the upper back part of the abdomen, and its role is to make enzymes that assist in digestion,” Hasselle said.
He says while most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will still have a fairly well-functioning pancreas, some will develop diabetes as a result.
“The pancreas makes insulin, which regulates blood sugar, and a small percentage of patients will present with diabetes as one of their symptoms,” Hasselle said.
More common symptoms include back or stomach pain as well as jaundice.
“That’s not because the pancreas isn’t working well, it’s because the tumor in the pancreas blocks the biliary system, and all the bile that’s made in the liver can’t get through and backs up, and then you turn yellow,” Hasselle explained.
He says older age is the largest risk factor of pancreatic cancer, with the illness most commonly impacting people between 60 and 70 years old.
Hasselle adds that it’s highly uncommon for people under 40 to be diagnosed.
Genetics can play a role, as well, with 10% of pancreatic cancer patients having a family history of the disease. Smoking and obesity can also increase a person’s risk, according to Hasselle.
Diagnosis, treatment and prevention
“About 25% of pancreatic cancers are in a stage early enough that we think we have a chance of curing it when they’re diagnosed,” Hasselle said, adding that input from a multidisciplinary team is crucial to effectively treating the illness.
“You need GI doctors often to diagnose it, you need radiology to help tell us how close it is associated to the blood vessels, and if it’s something we can get out surgically, you need expert surgeons who have done lots of these procedures,” he said.
Beating pancreatic cancer is almost always an uphill battle, and part of the issue is that the cancer is not always operable, according to Hasselle.
“Probably only about 15% or 20% of patients are surgical candidates at the time of diagnosis, and the only way to really cure pancreatic cancer is to have surgery as part of your treatment,” he said.
Being unhealthy could rule out an operation for some people. Also, if the tumor is wrapped around important blood vessels, Hasselle says it’s not safe to try to remove it.
“The third problem is that a number of patients will already have had the cancer spread somewhere else in the body at the time of diagnosis, so the surgery wouldn’t be useful,” he said.
Even with surgery, pancreatic cancer is tough to cure, he says, adding that it can be curable with surgery in about one-third of cases.
Hasselle says there is not currently an effective pancreatic cancer screening tool for the general public.
“The best thing we can do is if you have a family history of cancers, especially pancreatic cancer, you need to see a genetic counselor to find out if you’re at increased risk,” he said. “There is some data to consider doing screening studies in people if we know they’re at higher risk because of their family history.”
Eating healthy and not smoking can also decrease a person’s risk of getting pancreatic cancer, he says.
“The raising of awareness and the drawing attention to cancer tends to help drive research, funding and clinical trials,” Hasselle said. “The more people know about it and are talking about it, and the more research dollars that are invested into it, the more likely we are to have improvements in treatment over time.”