By Jeremy Manier
Pancreatic cancer has made an unusual amount of news lately, with the very public struggles of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, and actor Patrick Swayze. The diagnosis can be dire news; the mean survival time following diagnosis is often measured in months, though that can vary depending on how far the tumor has progressed.
I recently talked with Irving Waxman, M.D., about why the disease is so difficult to treat, and how he finds hope in this relatively bleak arena. Here’s a snippet:
Q: We’re attuned to thinking that pancreatic cancer is a very bleak diagnosis, and clearly it is. So how do you and patients keep up hope in a seemingly hopeless field?
Waxman: That’s a very good question. I think that chemotherapy today has entered in my opinion, in the last decade, what we call smart chemotherapy. We’ve stopped using some of the “one agent kills everything” drugs, and now we try to be a little bit smarter, doing targeted therapy that affects a specific part of the growth. Every day there are new protocols, new clinical trials, and we have some going on here. The new therapies may not cure the disease, but they can definitely slow its progression. And with better imaging modalities we can now detect growths at a smaller size.
But in general your point is well taken. It is still a devastating disease. There is a wonderful organization, Pancan [the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network], and they do an amazing job of giving support and information for the patients, and they are also involved in philanthropy and research grants. It’s really a tremendous organization that gives a lot of hope for patients, and that’s an important resource.
Below you can see more of Waxman’s explanation of why pancreatic cancer is so difficult to detect and treat. He describes the organ’s location as a highway junction within the body where numerous arteries and veins crisscross, making it difficult to operate if a tumor is locally advanced. He also discusses the encouraging prospects for better early screening of the disease.