January is National Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Trials Awareness Month

Northwestern Medicine
Cancer Care/Oncology January 11, 2018

January is National Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Trials Awareness Month! Al B. Benson III, MD, an oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, sat down with us to answer the most frequently asked questions. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), an alliance of leading cancer centers devoted to patient care, research and education, and serves on the NCCN panel that develops treatment guidelines for pancreatic cancer.

What is the pancreas?

A glandular organ that is deep in the abdomen and behind stomach.  It also sits very close to the small intestine, liver and spleen. It produces pancreatic enzymes to help digestion of protein, fat and carbohydrates (exocrine function) and also produces hormones (eg. Insulin) to control blood sugar (endocrine function).

What are the different types of pancreas cancer?

There are two main types of pancreatic cancer – Exocrine and Endocrine tumors.  Exocrine tumors form in the pancreatic ducts (adenocarcinoma). Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is one of the most deadly forms of cancer and is the most common pancreatic cancer. Endocrine tumors are less common and may be benign (neuroendocrine tumors). These two types of tumors are treated very differently although surgery is considered for both types if possible.

Are there symptoms?

People may have the tumor and not have any symptoms for years, however one of the most common symptoms is painless Jaundice, yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Other common symptoms are digestive problems, including abnormal stools, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss as well as abdominal pain.

How can I prevent pancreatic cancer?

In general close to 90 percent of all pancreatic cancers are found in people age 55 and older. It is associated with smoking, obesity, diabetes, and chronic pancreatitis. A family history of pancreatic cancer is also a risk factor. In regards to lifestyle.  There is also evidence that consuming red meats and processed meats can increased your risk but this is not absolutely proven. There are also studies which suggest that people who exercise less and have heavy alcohol use are higher at risk.

Are there any clinical trials patients can enroll in?

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, we are always working to translate research into new and better treatments for our patients at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

For example, clinical trials using next generation sequencing to examine genetic changes within an individual patient’s tumor can help us potentially link a specific drug with specific genetic changes noted within his/her tumor.

Does diet and nutrition play a role?

Diet continues to be an area of investigation. It is important if people have lingering symptoms such as weight loss or jaundice (requires prompt evaluation) or abdominal pain that won’t go away, to be evaluated by their doctor. Knowing your family history is also crucial to prevention.

Patients can view a list of clinical trials offered at the Lurie Cancer Center by visiting our website, or contacting our clinical trials recruitment nurse at 312-695-1102 or cancertrials@northwestern.edu for personalized assistance. 


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