Pancreatic Cancer: The Silent Killer
Mark Davis, MD
Ron Henderson’s life took many twists and turns during his 64 years of existence. Wounded in the Gulf War he came home only to be injured in an auto accident. Once again recovering from his injuries he thought his medical misadventures were over. After leaving his favorite burger establishment Ron experienced vague pains in the area of his stomach. Within minutes nausea followed. Both problems he attributed to his recent food ingestion. Ron swallowed several Tums from a bottle he kept in his vehicle, as he drove back home. The symptoms subsequently faded. Days later he was partaking in a meal with friends as the pain recurred. Slightly more intense Tums appeared to be less effective. Approximately one week after Ron’s initial symptoms a work colleague noted his skin appeared yellow. Soon after his stool turned gray, as his urine darkened. Time had come to see his physician. His doctor correctly diagnosed him on the first visit.
Pancreatic cancer is insidious in its onset. Symptoms Ron exhibited were of a cancer already in its advanced stages. Early on pancreatic cancer hides itself from view. Loss of appetite, weight loss and digestive tract disturbances might be encountered first. Once the skin displays the yellowing effect, called jaundice, the cancer has usually spread throughout the pancreas. Blood tumor markers may be an indication of this horrific disease yet these are not as specific as visualization of the tumor, which improves diagnostics substantially. More precise are radiographs from an MRI or CAT scanner. Most precise is a biopsy or a surgical procedure.
Depending on the tumor’s aggressivity the 5-year survival for this dreaded disease, after diagnosis, is between 5-20%. Nonsurgical treatments, Chemotherapy and Radiation, may add a few months to life expectancy. Surgery can be curative in a small percentage of cases. Ron died less than 30 days after he was diagnosed. Certain groups of patients die more quickly, others fight to stay alive. The beloved actor Patrick Swayze lived 2 years after his original diagnosis. Near the end of Patrick Swayze’s life the cancer spread to his liver, causing his death a short time later.
Researchers are seeking early signs to recognize this dreaded disease. Risk factors are smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, obesity and genetics. With vague symptomatology the disease remains undiagnosed until late in its course. The following enumeration may be helpful to catch this disease early:
1) Recurrent indigestion.
2) Unexplained nausea or vomiting
3) Weight loss of unknown cause
4) Nonspecific stomach pains
5) Loss of appetite
7) Mid back and should pain
8) Discolored urine and feces
9) Yellowing of the skin (usually a late sign)
Best advice: Reduce or eliminate those risk factors under your control. Secondly, in the event any of the symptomatology in the enumeration is present seek help from your health provider as soon as possible. Early diagnosis, when possible, is the best means of extending a patient’s lifespan.
Mark Davis, MD firstname.lastname@example.org Medical Record Investigator, Journalist, Media Consultant, Author and Science Tutor.