November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, a time
to get educated about a disease with staggering statistics and
n By Kelly Savio Staff Writer
Only 23 percent of people with pancreatic cancer will be living one year after their diagnosis, and only 4 percent will live for five years. The disease kills one person every 17 minutes.
Despite the serious statistics from the American Cancer Society, many people have never heard of pancreatic cancer or aren’t exactly sure what the illness is. Others might remember that in June, pancreatic cancer took the life of Richard “Dick” Nicholls, executive director of the Gilroy Garlic Festival from 1985 to 2004.
“It’s a very nasty disease,” said Dr. Joseph Mason, chief of oncology at Kaiser Permanente Santa Teresa Medical Center.
“If it has spread to the liver, the patient is going to live less than a year. If the tumor hasn’t spread but is advanced, they’ll live a year or two with chemotherapy and an operation. They’ll live longer but will often die anyway. A total cure after having the operation is an exception rather than the rule.”
The mortality rate of pancreatic cancer is in the 90th percentile, Mason said. By the time people with the disease start experiencing symptoms, the cancer has already spread and is too advanced for an operation, he said, and the tumors don’t respond well to treatment.
Renee Armenta of Salinas learned the hard way that the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often deceptive. Her mother, Mary “Dito” Armenta, was diagnosed with the disease in March 2004.
Mary had been experiencing symptoms for several months but was found other explanations for them, Renee said.
For example: Mary was diabetic, and after returning from a weekend trip to Las Vegas, she noticed her blood sugar was unusually high. But she assumed the culprit was the lavish meals enjoyed on the vacation.
Mary also noticed she was getting tired more easily, but with twin grandchildren, she figured it was just fatigue from to trying to keep up with them.
She also suffered extreme nausea, but when her doctors gave her medication, she didn’t question it further.
When Mary began vomiting in February 2004 and wasn’t able to keep food down, she switched doctors and had tests run. Abnormal results led to an abdominal ultrasound, which showed large masses on her pancreas and liver.
The pancreatic cancer had already spread to her liver, and she died two months after being diagnosed. She was 52.
“By the time she was diagnosed, it was the end stages of the cancer,” Renee Armenta said. “Your mother’s not supposed to die when she’s 52. She’s supposed to grow old and see her grandchildren grow up. It was really hard.”
Like Mary Armenta, people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer don’t have many options for treatment. Only two drugs have been approved by the FDA to specifically treat pancreatic cancer, said Jennifer Wells, a pancreatic cancer patient consultant with the FDA’s oncological drug evaluation committee. Gemcitabine was approved in 1995, and Tarceva was approved just two weeks ago.
“The drugs we have available just haven’t worked well for pancreatic cancer,” Mason said. “We have a huge list of chemotherapy drugs that don’t work and have only found these few that do.”
Part of the problem in finding additional drugs to treat pancreatic cancer is keeping people with the disease alive long enough to see how different treatments work, according to the American Cancer Society.
The symptoms of the disease can include back pain if the tumor grows outward toward the rear of the body. Jaundice – the yellowing of the skin and eyes – can occur if the tumor blocks the bile duct, which is near the pancreas, Mason said.
The pancreas has two functions: It makes an insulin hormone that helps control blood sugar levels, and it makes digestive enzymes that help digest fat and proteins in the intestines, Mason said.
Diabetics are twice as likely to get pancreatic cancer, and people with immediate family members who have had pancreatic cancer have a 5 to 10 percent higher chance of getting the disease, Mason said. Smokers also have a significantly increased risk.