At this time of year many of us find ourselves being thankful that we have managed to navigate another year on this planet and, hopefully, came out the other side of 2019 with our homes, our family, our friends, some money and, most importantly, our health. But that is not always the case.
Cancer is a dreadful disease that affects most families. The National Cancer Institute claims an estimated 1,735,350 cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States during 2018, with 609,640 ultimately dying from the disease. While we hear a lot about specific forms of cancer – such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and lung cancer – pancreatic cancer is actually one of the worst types of cancer to be diagnosed with.
Due to its very nature, pancreatic cancer is hard to detect thanks to it having minimal symptoms until the sufferer is in the late stages of the disease, meaning it is not often diagnosed until there is nothing left that the medical profession can do to help you.
If you are not sure what the pancreas is it is a vital organ that produces the hormone that regulates our body’s blood sugar – insulin. However the pancreas is tricky to locate as it is hidden by the liver and stomach at the back of the abdomen, which is why it can be difficult to detect early tumors when we go for our routine physical exams.
With this knowledge it is easier to understand why 9% of pancreatic cancer patients are able to stay alive five years beyond the original diagnosis. Endocrinologist Dr Somashekar Krishna acknowledges that pancreatic cancer “doesn’t produce any symptoms early on.” However, researchers have begun to find ways that they can help those suffering with this dreadful disease.
This was the case with Patricia Beatty. When she had been struggling with a stomach virus she went to the hospital to be checked out. Once there the doctors scanned her stomach and found out she was not actually suffering from a stomach virus but in fact she had a cyst which they told her was “precancerous.”
There are two different ways that pancreatic cancer develops. Patients either have a cyst that can change and become cancerous, or they already have a cancerous tumor. The main difference between a cyst and a tumor is that while a pancreatic cyst is mainly fluid, a tumor is solid. Pancreas cysts are found quite often and, with doctors able to test the cyst fluid, thankfully most of them are benign. However it is quite difficult to determine which will stay benign and which will develop into actual cancer.
By using sonograms – or some of the other diagnostic imaging tools available – both cysts and tumors, cancerous or benign, can be detected however these procedures are very expensive and therefore are only used if and when doctors are fairly certain of the outcomes.
Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has been carrying out a study of a new device that could detect pancreatic cancer earlier. The diagnostic tool provides a microscopic look at the cyst wall and Krishna – who led the study – confirms the study shows a high accurate rate during the virtual biopsy, saying “we can diagnose cysts with the accuracy of 96% to 97%.”
But how does the procedure actually work? A tiny scope beams a laser light which in turn produces a cellular image not only of the cyst but more importantly, the inside of the cyst. Krishna continues “[in] looking at the image pattern which comes from the cyst wall, which comes as a direct video feed in real time, we can conclude what the diagnosis is.”
With this new technology becoming more available Krishna and his colleagues are training doctors across America how to use it in their hospitals, meaning more patients will be able to have the treatment and potentially beat pancreatic cancer thanks to their precancerous cysts being diagnosed earlier.
But while this latest technology can ultimately save lives, it is still an expensive procedure and will only be carried out if a doctor has already ordered a sonogram or an MRI is ordered – potentially for a different reason due to the symptom free nature of this disease. Therefore, unless like Patricia Beatty you are at the hospital for problems requiring further treatment, the silent killer will continue to grow in the majority of sufferers until a time when it is too late to treat them.
Obviously the easiest way to make such diagnoses’ earlier is via a blood test – as is the case for many more diseases and illnesses. However Krishna admitted that although researchers were working on producing this simple test it is as yet to be developed.
Until then, patients have to hope they have a reason to head to the hospital for tests, so they too can be like Beatty. Thanks to the procedure the doctors found her cyst before it became malignant and spread meaning she is now cancer free.