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Doctors seek methods for earlier pancreatic cancer diagnoses

March 18, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
The American Cancer Society estimates 45,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. But pancreatic cancer is often difficult to diagnose, especially at its earliest stage. Researchers are focusing on a way to detect it earlier than ever before.

While deaths for lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers have continued to inch down, rates of people getting diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have been slowly increasing over the past 10 years. Currently researchers are working on ways to detect the killer before it forms.

When it's finally detected it's often beyond surgery's reach. Pancreatic cancer may be relatively rare, but doctors say it remains one of the most lethal.

"The number of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year is almost the same number as the people who die," said Dr. Anne Marie Lennon, Johns Hopkins University.

The chance of living five years after diagnosis is less than 5 percent, and most will die within the first year. Patients usually have no symptoms until the cancer's already spread.

A recent study found up to 13 percent of patients who underwent an MRI had pancreatic cysts. Dr. Lennon says they account for up to 20 percent of pancreatic cancers.

Now, using endoscopic ultrasound, doctors get high-resolution images of the pancreas. If cysts are found, they are biopsied and the cyst fluid is analyzed to determine if it's cancerous.

"So we have the potential to intervene and try and prevent up to 20 percent of people with pancreatic cancer developing it," said Lennon.

Researchers are also working on a promising gene test that could predict if cysts have the potential to become cancerous. It's currently being studied in a large clinical trial across the country.

African-Americans have a higher risk of getting pancreatic cancer than whites. The Mayo Clinic warns other top risk factors include obesity, diabetes, smoking and a family history of pancreatic cancer.