Compared to other cancers, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare. But it is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Only about 8.5% of patients with pancreatic cancer are alive five years after their diagnosis. This one of the lowest survival rates for any kind of cancer.
"There are three main reasons pancreatic cancer is so deadly," explains Conan Kinsey, MD, PhD, a physician-scientist who treats patients with pancreatic cancer at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and University of Utah Health. "First, it's most often diagnosed late."
The earlier pancreatic cancer is caught, the better chance a person has of surviving. But most patients don't have symptoms of pancreatic cancer in earlier stages. Only 10% of patients are diagnosed when the cancer is in just the pancreas and may be removed by surgery. It is often discovered after the cancer has spread, when patients have symptoms such as jaundice, pain, and weight loss. Currently, there is no way to screen for pancreatic cancer.
The pancreas is also located in what Kinsey calls "high-price real estate," or an important part of the body. The pancreas is surrounded by several blood vessels, which can make surgery tricky. The main parts of the gut are in that area as well.
Finally, pancreatic cancer is highly likely to spread to other parts of the body, or metastasize. "About 85% of patients already have metastatic cancer when they are diagnosed, so we're not able to do surgery," Kinsey says. "Most patients are going to need chemotherapy to treat their disease."
Kinsey says researchers are working to better understand how pancreatic cancer grows and spreads. They are also looking for ways to screen for pancreatic cancer, so it can be found earlier. Clinical trials at HCI and other medical centers are testing new ways to treat the disease, such as a promising new combination therapy, creating hope for a future in which pancreatic cancer is not the lethal disease it is today.