Receiving any cancer diagnosis is difficult, but getting the news that you have pancreatic cancer is devastating. Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest five years survival rates of all types of cancer — meaning fewer than five percent of patients live longer than five years — and those numbers haven’t change much in recent decades.
One of the reasons this disease is so deadly is it’s often not detected until it has spread to other sites throughout the body. Although advances in treating pancreatic cancer have improved prognoses, researchers are focusing attention on early detection as a means to reduce to mortality rate. By catching the disease earlier, doctors have a better chance of containing it and improving the patient’s chances of staying in remission and living far more than five years past diagnosis.
In fact, there are several studies underway that are making progress in the realm of early detection, and many are showing promising discoveries.
Imagine being able to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages with a simple blood test. If the results of a landmark study at Johns Hopkins University hold true, that might just be the reality in a few years.
University researchers discovered that two genes, BNC1 and ADAMTS1, appeared in 81 percent of the blood samples from early-stage pancreatic cancer patients. These genes were not present in the samples of patients who do not have cancer or who suffer from pancreatitis. The same genes were present in cancerous tissue taken from patients in later stages of the disease, leading researchers to conclude that these markers indicate a strong likelihood of cancer. The tests are not conclusive, and significant additional research is required to confirm the connection, but given that the PSA antigen test for prostate cancer only detects an average of 20 percent of those cases, a test that could potentially identify 80 percent of cancers holds a great deal of promise.
While we may be a few years away from a simple blood test to detect pancreatic cancer, another method, known as metabolomics analysis, is showing an equal level of promise.
Researchers at Kobe University in Japan used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to measure the level of metabolites in the blood of patients with pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis sufferers and healthy patients. When examining the levels in all subjects, the scientists discovered that the patients with cancer had different levels of 18 metabolites than the others. Upon further study, they were able to identify four specific metabolites that had noticeably different results and are considered indicative of cancer.
The metabolomics screening is touted as being relatively simple to administer in addition to being highly accurate: the test has a nearly 90 percent accuracy rate. Compare to the current pancreatic cancer screening methods, this form of analysis is more effective for early detection and allows doctors to treat the disease while it is still in an early, manageable stage.
Because the pancreas is located deep within the body and cannot be felt from the outside, it’s impossible to detect tumors during routine physical examination. Unlike, say, breast tumors, which can often be felt during a self-exam, pancreatic tumors have no outward signs.
Some doctors are turning to endoscopic ultrasound as a means to examine patients with a high risk of pancreatic cancer. Essentially, this method combines endoscopy, which involves inserting a long, camera equipped tube down the throat into the digestive system to examine digestive issues, with ultrasound, which uses sound waves to produce high quality images. By adding a tiny ultrasound device to an endoscopic tube, a physician can get close to the organs and clearly see any tumors or other indications that cancer cells are growing. Again, this method is only for high-risk patients, and is generally only performed when there is suspicion of cancer.
Early detection of cancers in the form of mammograms and colonoscopies has saved thousands of lives in the last decade. By discovering new ways to detect lethal pancreatic cancer early, it’s possible that survival rates could eventually equal — or surpass — those of breast, colon and other types of cancer.