If you or a loved one grew up watching baseball in the 1960s, you may relate more personally to the troubling news that Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson has pancreatic cancer.
If you’re of an age to remember Gibson shutting down batters in his prime, you may be entering the stage of your life when pancreatic cancer is a real concern. About two-thirds of people with pancreatic cancer are 65 and above.
While cancer of the pancreas is not particularly common — it accounts for about 3 percent of all cancers — it is particularly deadly.
For each case of pancreatic cancer in the U.S., there are about five cases of breast cancer, for example. Despite its relative rarity, more people are expected to die from pancreatic cancer next year than from breast cancer.
Why is this? And what might it mean for Gibson or other people with pancreatic cancer? For answers, we went to an AdventHealth oncologist, or expert in cancer treatment. His name is J. Pablo Arnoletti, MD, a board-certified surgical oncologist.
What Are Pancreatic Cancer’s Symptoms?
Some symptoms are relatively simple to connect with an illness. If a person has a bullseye rash, they are likely to have Lyme disease. If a person has repeated seizures, they have epilepsy.
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer’s symptoms are what doctors call “non-specific.” This means they can be caused by many conditions, most of which are more common than pancreatic cancer.
“It may be intense stomach pain in one patient but not the next, or it could be something else entirely and it’s very difficult to know for certain and what to look for,” Dr. Arnoletti says.
According to the American Cancer Society, other symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
● Jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and skin. This is among the first symptoms for most people with pancreatic cancer.
● Weight loss or poor appetite. People with pancreatic cancer often have little to no appetite.
● Nausea and vomiting, caused by the cancer pushing on the stomach.
● Belly or back pain, though these symptoms are common and usually caused by something else.
You should pay special attention to these symptoms if any of the following are true:
● You smoke, chew tobacco or have been exposed to other cancer-causing chemicals
● Another member of your family has pancreatic cancer.
● You have long-term inflammation of the pancreas, called chronic pancreatitis.
Early Detection: A Cancer Truism
There’s one basic fact that most of us know about cancer: The earlier it’s caught, the more likely treatment is to be effective.
“Catching any cancer early on is the key to surviving it,” says Dr. Arnoletti. “But it’s very hard to diagnose pancreatic cancer, which is why it is commonly found only in the late stages.”
Ideally, we catch cancer early, before there are symptoms. That’s why women get regular mammograms even if they don’t have signs of breast cancer. Unfortunately, there’s no similar easy test for pancreatic cancer.
“There are no easy screenings for it, no swabs, blood or urine tests, or anything like that to help diagnose it early,” Dr. Arnoletti said. “Your best chance of catching it early is to go to a hospital that deals with a high volume of pancreatic cancer cases since they see it more often they’re better at recognizing it.”
How Pancreatic Cancer Is Found
Scans like an MRI, CT or ultrasound may be able to spot pancreatic cancer. But the tragic reality is that a tumor large enough to show up on a scan may be too advanced to treat.
Dr. Arnoletti says hospitals that deal with a high volume of cancer cases, as we do, are generally the best at spotting these tumors when they’re still small enough to treat.
Hope and a Brighter Horizon for Pancreatic Cancer
Despite the statistics about pancreatic cancer, there are still treatment options that can raise the quality of a patient’s life.
“We believe there’s always something that can be done,” Dr. Arnoletti says. “At least we can extend and improve quality of life and give you the peace of mind that you’re in the best possible care with a team of people that are doing everything that they can to help you through it.”
And research continues to look into ways to find the cancer earlier, deliver medication more directly to the tumor and slow its growth.
Research, greater awareness and more frequent detection can start to reduce the number of people that die from this terrible disease every year — and start increasing survivors, Dr. Arnoletti says.