Good news was released about cancer survival rates last week, showing that 10 year survival rates have reached 50%, but despite this positive news the shocking revelation came that 10 year survival rates for pancreatic cancer haven’t changed at all since the 70s.
We’ve been speaking to Nick Maisey, Consultant Oncologist at London Bridge Hospital (www.londonbridgehospital.com) about this form of the disease, what the symptoms are, and why it is still so difficult to treat.
What are the most common symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
‘Many cases of pancreatic cancer present with vague, non-specific symptoms such as weight loss, abdominal discomfort or a change in bowel habit. Less commonly patients can develop more specific symptoms such as painless jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) or pale coloured stools and dark urine. If patients have any unexplained persistent symptoms, it is sensible to seek medical advice as early as possible as there is a higher chance of cure when pancreatic cancer is detected at an early stage.’
How can you reduce your chance of developing the disease?
‘It is believed that improving your life-style factors can reduce the chance of developing pancreatic cancer and in particular there appear to be links with smoking and obesity. Some cases can be linked with other medical conditions such as chronic pancreatitis and diabetes, but most cases of the disease are sporadic (i.e. occur without any obvious causal factors).’
How is the disease normally treated?
‘The choice of treatment is dependent on the stage of the cancer. If the cancer is detected at an early stage (i.e. the cancer is localised to the pancreas gland itself) it can be possible to remove the cancer with an operation. However if the cancer has spread to other organs in the body, or if it is too large for surgery, chemotherapy is often used to treat patients although it is not always possible to cure the disease. In some situations a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy is used to control the cancer.’
Are there different types of pancreatic cancer? Can you give a brief outline of each and how they are different?
‘The most common type of pancreatic cancer (over 90% of cases) is known as adenocarcinoma and is derived from the glandular cells within the pancreas. These cancers are often only detected when there has been spread of the cancer to other parts of the body. There are rarer types of cancer that occur in the pancreas, the most common group being so-called ‘neuroendocrine’ cancers. These cancers can produce excess amounts of gut hormones and so can produce unusual symptoms such as high or low blood sugar, symptoms of stomach ulcers, and diarrhoea. Because of these unusual symptoms this unusual type of pancreatic cancer is often detected before the cancer has had a chance to spread and so generally the chance of cure is higher than with the more common adenocarcinoma.’
Who is most at risk of developing pancreatic cancer/is pancreatic cancer more common in men or women of a certain age?
‘Each year in the UK, approximately 8500 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is marginally more common in men and the majority of patients are over 60 years old.’