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This year in America, some 56,770 people will be stricken with pancreatic cancer — and 45,750 people will die from it.
Those estimates from the American Cancer Society (ACS) paint a grim portrait of the disease, which researchers have pegged as the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country.
Pancreatic cancer, which affects a 6-inch organ near the stomach and is treated through surgery and chemotherapy, has made recent headlines for high-profile cases. “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek was recently diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, as was Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys. News broke Friday that Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has the stage 2 form of the illness. It killed Apple visionary Steve Jobs in 2011.
What are the symptoms — and, as importantly, the prognosis — for this disease?
Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is hard to catch early, according to the ACS. The organ is too deep inside the body for doctors to feel any abnormalities, like a tumorous lump, during a routine checkup.
Symptoms — which include jaundice, greasy bowel movements, weight loss, belly pain, back pain, nausea and blood clots — don’t generally develop until the disease has progressed.
There are five stages of pancreatic cancer: Stage 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4. Although it’s difficult to catch the cancer in its earlier stages, that’s a patient’s best bet for survival: In those earlier days, people can be cured and tend to live longer, Daniel M. Labow, MD, chief of Mount Sinai Hospital’s surgical oncology division, tells The Post.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), stage 0 pancreatic cancer essentially means that some abnormal cells have been found, but that the situation hasn’t progressed to full-blown pancreatic cancer.
Stage 1 means that a cancerous tumor has formed that is less than 4 centimeters (1½ inches) in size, but that no cancerous cells have spread outside of the pancreas. The five-year survival rate at this stage is 34 percent, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN).
Stage 2 and 3 are what doctors call “regional” phases: That means that the cancer is growing and spreading, but that the disease is still relatively contained near the pancreas. In stage 2, the cancer may have started to spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes. By stage 3, the cancer has spread to four or more nearby lymph nodes. Survival rates for regional pancreatic cancer are around 12 percent, per the PCAN.
In stage 4 — the final stage of pancreatic cancer — the cancer has spread to other, farther-away parts of the body, such as the lungs or liver. Technically, at this point, the cancer isn’t curable — just treatable.
“Unfortunately, the prognosis is poor for patients with stage 4 pancreas cancer,” says Labow. “In general, five-year survival rates are between 5 and 10 percent,” while the median survival rate — meaning how long most patients at this phase typically live — is about a year, depending on how they react to treatment, he says.
Although he says there are exceptions, most patients with a cancer this advanced “succumb to the disease.”
The NCI targets the five-year survival rate for all combined forms of pancreatic cancer at 9.3 percent. To understand how deadly that is, compare it to the five-year survival rate for melanoma of the skin (92.2 percent) and the five-year rate for breast cancer in women (89.9 percent).
Your best bet, if you have risk factors for the disease (for example, a family history), is to talk to your doctor about undergoing genetic testing, according to the ACS. If you’re found to have genes linked to the disease, your doctor might start testing you earlier and more often for cancerous cells.
And, of course, there’s also hope in scientific advancement. On Thursday, New York University researchers announced that, in an animal study, they had managed to target a single gene that — when removed — appeared to halt the spread of aggressive pancreatic cancer.
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