Over the past year, doctors have seen promising results from studies investigating new treatment approaches using chemotherapy for patients with pancreatic cancer, a disease that remains among the deadliest of cancers. Yet 38 percent of pancreatic cancer patients received no treatment at all within one year of diagnosis, according to study findings.
“Those results are not surprising as therapy for pancreatic cancer is rarely curative,” said Gabriela Chiorean, MD, a gastrointestinal oncologist and researcher at the University of Washington. “Most pancreatic cancers are diagnosed at a stage where the goal is to prolong survival—not to cure the disease. Some physicians and patients may be less willing to choose treatment because of that.”
Chiorean believes that more patients with pancreatic cancer could benefit from and should be offered treatment for their disease. During this year’s Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Chiorean is raising awareness of both this issue and the progress that’s been made in pancreatic cancer treatment.
The Harsh Reality of Pancreatic Cancer
While the statistics may seem dismal, they are improving. From 1993 to 2013, while the median overall survival for metastatic pancreatic cancer patients remained steady, more patients achieved long-term survival—defined as a year or longer. According to Chiorean, these survivors were diagnosed at a younger age and may have been more likely to receive treatment.
Chiorean believes that survival rates would further improve if more patients were offered treatment. But as research point out—many patients do not receive treatment. Chiorean’s personal experience backs the study findings; she frequently sees patients who were not offered treatment in other centers and are looking for a second opinion.
Another reason patients may not receive treatment is that pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose. As a result, 80 percent of patients are diagnosed at an advanced stage when curative treatments are not an option. By the time the cancer is detected, oncologists may be hesitant to offer treatment because they fear their patients are too fatigued or ill, and unable to tolerate treatment regimens, according to Chiorean. It may be the physician’s intent to relieve stress on both the patients and their caregivers.
Even more challenging, pancreatic cancers can only be removed less than 15 percent of the time. “If you can’t take it out of the body, eventually it will start spreading unless it has already spread,” Chiorean said.
Managing treatment toxicities and a patient’s quality of life can also make a difference, according to Chiorean. She tries to prevent side effects by adjusting treatment dosing as needed and continuously asks patients how they are feeling before each treatment.
“That’s where the art of medicine comes into play,” she said. “We’re not treating everyone the same.”
Early Screening for Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer can present with broad gastrointestinal symptoms that can be diagnosed as peptic ulcer disease or irritable bowel syndrome, and sometimes it presents with new diabetes. “A clinician might treat patients for indigestion for a year, and then ultimately diagnose them with late-stage pancreatic cancer,” Chiorean said. “If a patient is losing weight and has new onset diabetes, they should be screened with an ultrasound or CT scan for pancreatic cancer.”
Researchers are working on ways to catch pancreatic cancer earlier. Imaging techniques to detect premalignant cystic neoplasms, and other benign conditions that may be precancerous, are being explored, as are biopsies followed by regular ultrasound screening for high-risk patients, including those with a family history of pancreatic cancer.
We’re learning more about the disease and can offer treatment options that allow patients to feel comfortable for as long as possible.
Pancreatic Cancer Care Is an Uphill Battle
Improving care for pancreatic cancer remains a struggle. The pancreas has limited blood supply, making it difficult for medications to penetrate it. But new treatment strategies are making in-roads. New therapy combinations are being used before and after surgery for patients with pancreatic cancer, and new approaches are being explored in clinical trials to make chemotherapy less intensive for some patients. Chiorean recommends clinical trials of pancreatic cancer treatments for eligible patients.
“Despite the statistics, there’s definitely hope in the future of pancreatic cancer treatment,” said Chiorean. “We’re learning more about the disease and can offer treatment options that allow patients to feel comfortable for as long as possible.”
To learn more about the patient experience with pancreatic cancer, read “Facing Each Day with Pancreatic Cancer, Hand-in-Hand.”