There are no mammograms, colonoscopies or PSA tests to help screen for pancreatic cancer. So by the time symptoms appear, it's usually too late. The cancer has advanced to a stage that is not curable.
"The survival rate for all those who develop pancreatic cancer is about 5 percent at five years," said Dr. Rick Zubarik, a gastroenterologist at Fletcher Allen Health Care/UVM. "So 5 percent of people who develop it live five years, and the median survival in general is from five to seven months."
Not long, and now a new study says if you're obese and you get pancreatic cancer you may live even less time-- two to three months less compared to healthy weight patients with the same disease. Doctors already knew obesity and smoking put people at greater risk for developing pancreatic cancer, but what they don't know is why they face a worse outcome, as well.
"The authors would like to suggest that obesity in itself sets up a milieu in your body where a tumor grows more easily through what is touted to be chronic inflammation, and metabolism, particularly in insulin resistance. I think that really hasn't been established in this article, but is interesting. And there are other possibilities," Zubarik said.
Including more difficulty when trying to surgically resect pancreatic tumors-- a patient's only hope. Zubarik says overweight people have more tissue to maneuver.
He's been studying screening tools for high-risk patients so tumors can be detected earlier. Since 2006, 546 people over age 50 with a first-degree relative with pancreatic cancer have had a CA 19-9 blood test. Five precancerous lesions were ultimately found, along with one early stage cancer. That patient is still alive nine years later.
"So it does appear that you can detect early cancer with pancreatic cancer with this method and clearly you can have long-term survival, but how frequently this occurs-- I think what we need to figure out in this longitudinal and larger study that I'm planning," Zubarik said.
He's planning to add more people to his blood test study while he retests those already involved, people hoping for a screening tool to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages.
Those eligible for Zubarik's study are people between ages 50 and 80 who have a first-degree relative with pancreatic cancer. For more information -- UVM Pancreatic Cancer Screening Study -- Contact: Mary Brennan at 802-847-5037.
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