Pancreatic cancer tough to detect

August 26, 2008 7:01:09 PM PDT
Gene Upshaw's death is focusing attention on pancreatic cancer that is usually a swift killer and is still very difficult to treat successfully.

Less than five percent of people diagnosed with the disease, are still alive five years later. Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is rare because they're not obvious symptoms that point specifically to the disease.

"The majority of pancreatic cancer occurs in the head area of the pancreas," says Dr. Andrew Ko.

Dr. Ko is a nationally recognized expert on cancer of the pancreas at UCSF. He says Gene Upshaw's death coming just days after his diagnosis is an extreme case.

"Yes, the disease is very aggressive, but typically, in most patients, we have a chance to initiate some therapy," says Dr. Ko.

Still he says the prognosis is rarely good. There's currently no widely available screening test for pancreatic cancer and the symptoms: pain in the abdomen or back, jaundice, lack of appetite, and weight loss, often don't show up until it's too late.

"About 90 percent of patents present with disease that's beyond the early stage, meaning it's no longer operable," says Dr. Ko.

Successful surgery is the only known cure, but since the pancreas sits so close to major blood vessels and organs like the liver, the cancer can often spread quickly. Patients who are beyond surgery are typically treated with chemo therapy to slow the cancer's advance.

"For those folks, the immediate survival rate is in the range of five to six months or so, even with the best chemo therapy that we have," says Dr. Ko.

Recent media attention has focused on Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who survived pancreatic cancer in 2003, but doctors say jobs had a rare form, that's generally easier to treat.

However for patients like Upshaw the diagnosis usually begins a battle measured in months rather than years.

Dr. Ko did tell us that some advances in chemotherapy at UCSF have extended survival rates in some patients to around a year, but the disease is tough, even for patients who receive surgery. They're long term survival rate is about 30 percent over five years.


Load Comments