Detecting pancreatic cancer early

Justice Ginsburg is one of the few pancreatic cancer patients fortunate enough to have been diagnosed in time to undergo surgery.

Ginsburg's doctor discovered the cancer in a routine exam. But UCLA Medical Oncologist J. Randolph Hecht, says pancreatic cancer is so uncommon it's not practical to do CT scans on everyone.

"There's no evidence that whole body scanning improves people's survival. There are a lot of questions about it. People are worried about the radiation risk," said Dr. Hecht.

But because Ginsburg had colon cancer before, Dr. Hecht says she probably undergoes regular scans.

"There it does actually makes sense to screen. Because in colon cancer if you find the cancer coming back in an early state sometimes you can cut that out for cure. Therefore it makes sense to do scans and they may have found this incidentally," said Dr. Hecht.

Her tumor is reported to be small -- about one centimeter. Even when caught early, the odds of surviving pancreatic cancer for five years is just 37 percent, according to the ACS. Compare that to catching breast cancer early where the odds of survival are about 100 percent.

"Pancreatic cancer is a bad disease. There are about 30,000 cases each year of pancreatic cancer, and about 30,000 deaths each year," said Dr. Hecht.

Doctors say Ginsburg appears to have a good shot at survival.

"There is still a descent chance that will come back. I look at it the other way that she probably in the best possible group of people with pancreatic cancer," said Dr. Hecht.

There's no early detection test for pancreatic cancer. Vague indigestion may be the only early sign. By the time symptoms such as yellowing skin, itching, weight loss and abdominal pain appear, the cancer has spread.

Smoking and a family history of the disease are considered the top risk factors. But doctor know far less about this cancer than other solid tumor disease.

"We have a long ways to go in finding it early. We have a long ways to go in treating it once it has spread," said Dr. Hecht.

One study underway is looking at immune therapy to block the cancer's return. And UCLA's Dr. Hecht says researchers are investigating whether DNA and protein screenings could help with early detection.



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