If you’ve seen a lot of people wearing purple this month, they’re doing it to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cancer killer in the United States. The color represents more than 32,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with the disease this year and almost as many who will die because of it by year’s end.
Pancreatic cancer affects the pancreas, an organ located in the abdomen that helps to make enzymes for food digestion. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect because the symptoms such as weight loss, fatigue, and abdominal discomfort are vague and associated with many other illnesses. When the pancreas produces too much insulin, other symptoms such as chills, diarrhea, general feelings of weakness, and muscle spasms may also be experienced. But these symptoms rarely occur in the early stages of the disease and they set in gradually, causing it to go untreated and producing devastatingly low survival rates.
If a doctor suspects pancreatic cancer, imaging tests may be done to gain a better view of the pancreas. But according to Charles Staley, MD, chief of surgical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and the Winship Cancer Institute, “Pancreatic tumors are difficult to image because they don’t show up very well on CT scans and MRI.”
In an effort to diagnose and treat pancreatic cancer in its earlier states, Emory researchers have tested a molecule that specifically binds pancreatic cancer cells to tiny “nanoparticles” made of iron oxide. The iron makes the particles clearly visible under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). If the tumor can be imaged better, radiation or chemotherapy may be able to be put into these particles to deliver them directly to the tumor. This could eventually mean higher survival rates.
There is no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer, but researchers have identified several risk factors. Smokers are two to three time more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than non-smokers and African-Americans are diagnosed more frequently than other races. Increased age, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis and a family history of pancreatic cancer are also common risk factors.
To hear more from Dr. Staley on how he treats patients with rare cancers, listen to his podcast.
You can also visit the Winship Cancer Institute’s website to get more resources on pancreatic cancer, including its diagnosis and treatment.