Although its final statistics have yet to be released, the American Cancer Society estmates that 60,430 adults (31,950 men and 28,480 women) in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021. The disease accounts for approximately 3% of all cancers. Pancreatic cancer is the eighth most common cancer in women and the tenth most common cancer in men. Incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have gone up by around 1% each year since 2000.
The pancreas is an organ located deep within the abdomen. It plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into fuel for the body’s cells. The pancreas has two main functions: an exocrine function that helps in digestion and an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar.
There has been a plethora of well-known names who fell to pancreatic cancer over the past year or so – everyone from popular Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek to Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, most recently, Sex and the City actor Willie Garson.
Their passing reminds us that current, standard therapies for pancreatic cancer are often inadequate, and that more research into newer treatment approaches are needed. In addition, we believe that early detection may increase chances for survival. Johns Hopkins Medicine has reported that five-year survival rates approach 25% if the cancers are surgically removed while they are still small and have not spread to the lymph nodes.
Cancers that start in the head of the pancreas are small and grow in a very crowded anatomical space, which can sometimes lead to these tumors being detected at an early stage. People affected by cancers that start in the body or tail of the pancreas, however, might have more of a chance to spread before showing symptoms.
Typically, there are several warning signs, the first being jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin. Other common symptoms include stomach pain and sudden weight loss. Some symptoms can be caused by a tumor pressing on the stomach or other parts of the digestive system as it spreads These may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating or swelling in the abdomen
Emphasizing the need for early detection, White Plains Hospital established a clinical trial for individuals at risk for pancreatic cancer in 2014. Individuals eligible for the trial include people with multiple affected family members, family members under age 50, and those who are genetically predisposed to the disease (for example, carriers of the BRCA mutation). Individuals enrolled in the program are offered testing with endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) of the pancreas, alternating with an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) of the pancreas, and follow-up testing and monitoring every 6-12 months for up to five years. Lean more about our clinical trials program or call (914) 849-7582.
Dr. Joshua Raff is a medical oncologist and Assistant Director of the Colorectal Cancer Program at WPH. To make an appointment, call (914) 849-7600.