Each year there are more than 30,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer in the United States, and an additional 60,000 cases diagnosed in Europeans. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), pancreatic cancer is the 9th or 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer (the rank depends upon gender) and the 3rd leading cause of cancer death in men and 4th among women. Because of the current general inability to diagnose this cancer early, most patients are diagnosed after the cancer has reached an advanced stage and the survival rate in such cases is among the worst of all cancers(4% five-year survival rate versus 62% for all cancers combined)1. Data from the ACS indicates that the median survival period from such diagnosis of untreated, advanced cancer is 3 ½ months, which increases to 6-months with effective treatment. Pancreatic cancer accounts for 2% of the diagnosed cases of cancer in the U.S., yet represents 5% of cancer deaths; overall cancer is the second major cause of death in the U.S., after cardiac pathologies.2 Improved diagnostic screening and treatments are needed to reduce the high mortality rate and enable better progress in the fight against this cancer, as other types of cancer treatments(such as for the prostate, colon, ovarian, and leukemia cancers) have enjoyed marked improvements due to earlier diagnosis and better treatment, as shown in Exhibit 1 “Relative Survival by Cancer”.
In terms of function, the pancreas produces enzymes used in the digestion process as well as secretes hormones and peptides which help regulate insulin to control blood sugar levels. Cancer in general develops through an uncontrolled proliferation of abnormal cells, while it may develop in one organ as a tumor, it can spread to other organs through the bloodstream and/or lymphatic system, causing secondary tumors (or metastases). The most common secondary sites related to pancreatic cancer are the liver, the peritoneum, and the lungs. In terms of causality or other explanations for the incidence of pancreatic cancer, the ACS reports that:
It has been approximated that about 30% of the changes which initiate cancer of the pancreas are caused by smoking and that about 8% are secondary to hereditary genetic predisposition. There appears to be a mild correlation between the onset of diabetes and pancreatic cancer, but it is not entirely clear if this is fully a cause or perhaps an effect of the cancer.
Unfortunately, the most commonly identified symptoms of pancreatic cancer are relatively vague and include the loss of appetite, weight loss, abdominal discomfort nausea, and jaundice. As such, the symptoms and screening as currently understood and practiced allow for delayed detection and diagnosis, which enables the cancer to advance unabated. Typically there must be a high degree of suspicion by the patient or medical personnel for appropriate medical evaluation to occur.