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Hope for a Devastating Diagnosis

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Laura Zabriskie

November 13, 2020
Pancreatic cancer has come to the forefront of many people’s minds since several high-profile celebrities succumbed to the illness, most recently “Jeopardy!” host, Alex Trebek, and Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It has gained a reputation for being one of the most dangerous cancers because it is so difficult to detect and treat.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer rarely shows symptoms until it is very advanced or has spread to other parts of the body. While the disease presents itself differently in every patient, there are several common risk factors for pancreatic cancer to look for:
  • Tobacco use
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Age
  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Inherited genetic syndromes
Unlike breast or colon cancer, pancreatic cancer has no standard screening for people of average risk. Researchers have not been able to find a test that reliably identifies pancreatic cancer and doesn’t flag other non-related and potentially benign issues. This is why it is critical to address any symptoms with your doctor. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include, but are not limited to:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
  • Diarrhea
  • Dark-colored urine
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that's becoming more difficult to control
If pancreatic cancer is found, it is important to seek treatment from an experienced team of experts. “It’s not one of the more common cancers that we see,” explained Kruti Patel, MD, radiation oncologist at the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC. “Pancreatic cancer is complex, and it is paramount that each patient’s case is evaluated by a multi-disciplinary oncology team that has experience in treating this disease.”

The pancreas is positioned deep within the body and is next to other critical organs like the liver and bowel. This can make surgery and recovery difficult for patients. In addition to surgery, other available treatments include radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Gang Chen, MD, PhD, medical oncologist and hematologist at the Berman Cancer Institute, described how the team develops a treatment plan that is tailored to each patient. “We look at each person’s tolerance to different kinds of treatment and the extent of their disease. Some patients are not good candidates for surgery, but advances in chemoradiation have allowed us to deliver the treatment that is less difficult on the body.” The same cancer may be managed differently in different patients based on what is best for the individual as a whole.

While there is still much to learn about screening and treatment, recent progress in next generation sequencing giving doctors hope that there will come a time when a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is not so devastating. To learn more about resources available to cancer patients and their families at The Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute, visit
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