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November 27, 2012 // By Olivia Fermano // Comments

In the Pink Shadow: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month Needs the Spotlight Now

Cancer // Clinical Trials // Diabetes // Endocrinology Share this article

Pancreatic-cancer-awareness-monthWith each passing year the month of November loses more and more respect. On paper it looks good – All Saint’s, All Soul’s, Veteran’s and Election Day come right in a row within the first two weeks. But poor Thanksgiving. For several centuries it rose through the ranks as one of the most distinctly “American” and popular of celebrations, becoming the most travelled holiday in the U.S.   

Free from religious association, Thanksgiving holds huge cross-cultural appeal. Sadly, what was the unofficial demarcation line between the fall and winter holiday seasons is becoming swamped out by Christmas and Black Friday insanity. Thanks to a persistently poor economy and expanding retail store hours, Thanksgiving doesn’t even get a full day to celebrate anymore.

Things don’t look much better for November in the non-retail arena either. Any health observances held during the 11th month are totally overshadowed by the Big Pink:  October and Breast Cancer Awareness month. Seriously... how many people realize or care that the Annual Great American Smoke Out has come and gone? I don’t want to pick on October. The blow-up in breast cancer awareness and research funding over the past 30 year is incredibly inspiring. But can we please give Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month some love?

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Approximately 44,000 people will be diagnosed with it this year alone and 38,000 will die from the disease. Sadly, because of the pancreas’ hidden location in the body, cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, making it one of the deadliest forms of cancer. It’s this ability to elude detection that gives pancreatic cancer a reputation as a certain death sentence.

The pancreas, located behind the stomach, plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into energy to fuel our body’s cells. It has two main functions; to secrete enzymes to aid in the digestion of protein, fat and carbohydrates, and to create and release insulin, the hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar and glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar. With its hidden position in abdomen, and general early symptoms (loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, upper abdominal and back pain) pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect unless purposely being looked for or until more serious symptoms (blood clots, jaundice – yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) arise.

Many in this country probably only became aware of pancreatic cancer for the first time when actor Patrick Swayze or Apple CEO, Steve Jobs were diagnosed. Neither of whom are alive today, which only reinforces the following:  pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of all cancers. Its victims have only a five percent chance of surviving the first five years after diagnosis.

Five percent. That’s it.

Anyone who has had a loved with pancreatic cancer understands how crushing that five percent is. We know what it feels like to be completely blindsided and helpless since in most cases there is so little anyone can do once a diagnosis is finally declared. In the spring 2008 my own mother went to the doctor’s office for a routine cardiac stress test and never came home. In the end it wasn’t the three arterial blockages and angioplasties that got her. Nor was it the stroke that followed the stent placement of her third angioplasty. It was pancreatic cancer. But we wouldn’t know that until weeks later.

After her stroke the doctors assured us that other than a partial loss of peripheral vision in her right eye, Mom would make a 99 percent recovery. And indeed at first it did seem she would. Only 24 hours after her stroke, as doctors predicted, the swelling of her brain was greatly reduced and she was “Mom” again, her memory thankfully intact along with her ability to speak and move. However, after weeks of no further rehabilitation progress, loss of appetite, random vomiting and total lethargy, an ominous blood clot – a telltale sign of pancreatic cancer – bloomed on her left calf. Less than three weeks later, she was gone.

I think the most upsetting part of Mom’s ordeal was that here was someone who saw her primary care physician, endocrinologist and two other specialists religiously. She did not miss appointments or skip prescribed medication. She didn’t drink, nor smoke (never did), ate a proper, well-balanced diet and was very active. How could something so serious go undetected for so long?

Don’t get me wrong…I wasn’t blaming anyone for not catching it sooner. Working in the field of medicine and health care my whole adult career, I was quite familiar with pancreatic cancer’s bad reputation. I just want to see pancreatic cancer, along with its symbolic purple ribbon, get the exposure and attention it so clearly needs.

So what’s being done right here, right now to fight against pancreatic cancer?

Earlier this month representatives from the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital, Pennsylvania Oncology and Hematology Associates, the Department of Surgery and Radiation Oncology participated in Purple Stride 2012 Philadelphia to help raise awareness and funds in the fight against pancreatic cancer. Sponsored by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network® and held in Fairmount Park, the 5K walk and timed run raised over $500,000.

Also in attendance that Saturday was Lisa Niemi Swayze, chief Ambassador of Hope of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Swayze joined the Network as its first celebrity spokesperson in honor of her late husband Patrick, who died in 2009 – after a nearly two-year battle with the disease. It’s chilling to read about her husband’s diagnosis on her website: “In 2008, when my husband, Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I didn’t know much about the disease, but he did. And he said to me, ‘I’m a dead man.’” 

Lisa Swaize - Pancreatic Cancer WalkSwayze is determined to keep fighting to increase government funding toward pancreatic cancer research and education, as well as raise funds to develop new technology and therapies to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Chief Ambassador of Hope, Lisa Niemi Swayze (shown here speaking) joined the Philly event on honor of her late husband, Patrick Swayze, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2009.

 On the local and national front, there’s Stand Up to Cancer, a groundbreaking partnership between our nation’s entertainment industry and cancer research community working to raise funds to accelerate the pace of trailblazing translational research. The ultimate goal is to get new, effective therapies to patients quicker and save lives.

Stand Up facilitates collaboration among the best and the brightest in the cancer research community, including members from Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.

Three years after Stand Up to Cancer first announced the formation of a group of scientific “Dream Teams” to overcome some of the thorniest cancer treatment and research challenges, the Abramson Cancer Center is well on its way to delivering on the promise innovative therapies. Armed with $18 million in funding, a group of Penn Medicine investigators who are a key part of the Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team are leading the nation’s most innovative pancreatic cancer research projects, which together have enrolled more than a thousand patients – nearly half the number who are participating in clinical trials for the disease nationwide at any time.

So far, Abramson researchers and clinicians have helped lead five clinical trials as part of this initiative. Be sure to check out this inspiring story that aired on CBS3, Eyewitness News to see how Stand Up to Cancer is making a positive impact on pancreatic cancer patients, right here in Philadelphia.

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