A Lethal Disease: Why Pancreatic Cancer is so Deadly

by Wellness Editor – MH

In each historical era, it seems that humanity is confronted by hideously powerful diseases that are impervious to all available medicines. In the middle ages, the infamous Black Death struck down roughly a third of Europe’s populace. A century ago, doctors were helpless against the grim trio of tuberculosis, pneumonia and polio. And while modern medicine has largely eliminated many pandemic killers, there are still maladies that strike fear in the hearts of patients and doctors alike. One such disease is pancreatic cancer, an extremely dangerous condition with a notoriously low survival rate.

About the Disease

Imagine being told that one of your most important organs had been infected with cancer, leaving you with only months to live. Sadly, this grim prognosis is almost always given to patients with pancreatic cancer. Though it might be overshadowed by its surrounding organs, the pancreas plays a significant role in the daily functions of your body. This organ not only produces key digestive enzymes, but it also secretes hormones that keep your blood sugar levels at an even keel.

Cancer can be basically defined as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, which invade and destroy crucial bodily tissues. This deadly cell growth can originate in many areas of the body, such as the lungs, colon, prostate, breasts, bone marrow, lymph nodes, kidneys and skin. In fact, the term “cancer” actually encompasses over a staggering 100 cell-growth diseases, which impact certain areas of the body before spreading elsewhere.

As with other vital organs inside the body, the pancreas is not immune to developing cancerous cells. What makes pancreatic cancer so deadly, however, is its stealthy nature. Often times, an afflicted patient may not experience any discernable systems into the cancer has developed well into its latter stages. The first telltale signs that something is amiss include a rapid loss of weight, abdominal pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). By the time these ominous red flags begin to appear, it is usually too late to save the patient’s life, as the cancer has begun to spread to the surrounding tissue (this process is known as metastasization).

When pancreatic cancer is finally diagnosed, patients face a sobering set of treatment options. Because this form of cancer is discovered so late it its development, only 10 to 15 percent of patients can realistically benefit from cancer removal surgery. Compounding this problem is that pancreatic cancer is an especially resilient foe; 85 percent of patients who undergo surgery will suffer a cancer relapse.

When surgery is performed, almost the entire pancreas is removed, with only the essential insulin-producing parts of the organ left inside the body. Essentially, this means that a person can survive with only a small portion of their pancreas. In fact, most people who succumb to pancreatic cancer do not die from pancreas failure; rather, they die after the cancer has spread to and destroyed the liver. 

Since pancreatic cancer is usually diagnosed in its advanced stages, patients are generally given a short amount of time to live. The American Cancer Society estimates that only 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive a year after their initial diagnosis. In total, individuals with pancreatic cancer face a harrowing five-year survival rate of just 4%.

The Search for a Cure

As with all deadly and incurable diseases, researchers have poured countless amounts of time and money into finding a cure for pancreatic cancer. While similiar efforts have dramatically improved the long-term prospects for many cancer patients, fighting pancreatic cancer has proven to be a daunting task. With its persistently high mortality rate, it is evident that medical science faces an uphill battle in treating this type of cancer.

Fortunately, there is some reason for optimism. In late 2012, a team of doctors from the University of Minnesota announced the creation of a new pancreatic cancer drug. This drug, referred to as “minnelide,” was injected into rats with pancreatic cancer. These rats were then compared against a second set of rats that did not receive the drug.        

Not surprisingly, the untreated set of rats died within 45 days. The group of rats treated with minnelide, in contrast, enjoyed a far better fate. Miraculously, these rats were completely and permanently cured of pancreatic cancer. The University of Minnesota researchers are now awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin testing on human subjects.

The minnelide drug wasn’t the only recent development in pancreatic cancer treatment. In December 2012, a collaborative study found that a certain combination of drugs may significantly improve a patient’s chances for survival. The study’s 861 subjects were given a medicine known as “nab-paclitaxel” in conjunction with gemcitabine, a drug commonly used to treat various forms of cancer. By combining these two medications, the researchers were able to increase the average subject’s survival period from 6.7 months to 8.5 months.

Preventative Measures

Despite these recent advances, there is still no effective treatment for pancreatic cancer, and it may take years for doctors to fully reap the benefits of this latest research. Of course, after learning about such a deadly disease, you are probably wondering about how best to safeguard your body against pancreatic cancer. While there is no way to fully prevent the development of this illness, following several sound and practical guidelines can help ensure that your pancreas remains cancer-free.

Avoid All Forms Of Tobacco – It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of cigarettes, snuff or chewing tobacco – tobacco is horrible for your body, and should be entirely avoided. Tobacco, according to the American Cancer Society, can cause cancer cells to form throughout the body, including inside of the pancreas.

Trim Your Waistline – While it is commonly understood that excess weight can lead to heart and blood pressure problems, dragging around an excessive amount of bodyweight can also put you at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. In addition to cutting out fattening foods from your diet, strive to exercise in 30 intervals at least three times per week. Some good forms of calorie-burning exercise include walking, running, swimming and biking.

Focus on Fruits and Vegetables – Though many people find them bland and unappealing, there is no denying that a well-balanced diet of fruits and veggies can help form a bulwark against all sorts of illnesses. The list of foods that merit inclusion in you diet include apples, organs, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes and bananas. Lean cuts of meat and fish (such as salmon and tuna) are also good choices.

Know Your Personal Risks – As mentioned earlier, there are several visible warning signs that something has gone horribly awry with the pancreas. A sudden drop in weight, pain in the abdominal area and a poor appetite might signal the development of pancreatic cancer. Additionally, some people are more predisposed to pancreatic cancer than others; individuals with diabetes, men, older adults and African Americans all have an elevated risk of developing this form of cancer.

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