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Hope is on the Horizon for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreas diagram

There is hope on the horizon in the battle against pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Deemed a “silent” killer because it has no symptoms in its earlier, more treatable stages, pancreatic cancer is often too advanced at diagnosis to be effectively treated. As a result, more than 90 percent of pancreatic cancer patients die within five years of diagnosis and only 7.7 percent survive beyond five years. However, earlier intervention in people at risk and the development of new therapies for pancreatic cancer offer some promise to save more lives.

While the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop the disease. For instance, smokers are two times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer compared to non-smokers. Obesity is another significant risk factor, as well as diabetes, a family history of pancreatic cancer, and chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).

Additionally, people with certain gene abnormalities have a higher risk for pancreatic cancer. For instance, BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, long associated with breast and ovarian cancers, are linked to pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer. Men and women who carry BRCA gene mutations are estimated to be at three to four times the risk for pancreatic cancer. For this reason, BRCA-positive pancreatic cancer patients may want to undergo screening for ovarian and breast cancers, and vice versa. Also a genetic disorder called Lynch syndrome is known to be associated with colorectal cancer as well as pancreatic cancer and cancers of the endometrium (the lining of the uterus), ovary, and small intestine.

People with a strong family history or genetic abnormalities associated with pancreatic cancer may be monitored to detect early signs of the disease before symptoms emerge. This is done with imaging tests such as endoscopic ultrasound or blood tests that screen for the presence of CA19-9, a tumor marker for pancreatic cancer.

Current treatment for pancreatic cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. New approaches to pancreatic cancer treatments are constantly being explored in clinical trials, such as targeted therapies that attack specific pancreatic cancer cells and immune therapies that harness a person's immune system to fight the disease. 

Because pancreatic cancer is curable in its earliest stages, it is critically important to be diagnosed and treated at a comprehensive cancer center where the patient can access a multidisciplinary team with extensive experience in assessing and designing individual treatment strategies.

NewYork-Presbyterian /Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUMC) and NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center have been designated as Centers of Excellence for both pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer care by the National Pancreas Foundation (NPF). The designation recognizes centers that provide comprehensive, multidisciplinary care to patients undergoing treatment for pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer, respectively. NewYork-Presbyterian is the only health system in New York to receive both designations at more than one location.

To learn more about pancreatic cancer and cancer care at NewYork-Presbyterian, visit nyp.org/cancer. To find a cancer specialist, please call 877-697-9355.