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Pancreatic Cancer: Fighting a Silent Killer

Facts About One of the Deadliest Cancers

Pancreatic cancer is rare, accounting for only 3 percent of all cancers. However, it accounts for 7 percent of all cancer deaths. In fact, 91 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within five years.

Part of the reason that pancreatic cancer is so deadly is because early symptoms can be vague and easy to miss, so it often is not detected until the cancer is very advanced and has spread to other areas of the body. Early detection of pancreatic cancer may improve your chance of survival, so it’s important to know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer and see your physician if you have any concerns.

Who Is at Risk

Anyone can get pancreatic cancer, but some people have a higher risk. While several risk factors are beyond your control, quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding workplace exposure to chemicals are all steps you can take to reduce your risk.

The Latest Treatment Options

Advanced technologies and leading-edge research are helping patients and physicians fight back against pancreatic cancer.

Ryan P. Merkow, MD, is a highly experienced surgical oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which has had the highest-ranked cancer program in Illinois for 12 years, according to U.S. News & World Report, 2018-2019. Dr. Merkow says there are many options for pancreatic cancer treatment at Northwestern Medicine, and individual treatment plans are developed by a multidisciplinary team of specialists for the best possible patient outcomes. Options may include:

  • Surgery. Surgery may be performed to remove all or part of the pancreas and surrounding tissue, and minimally invasive options are often available.
  • Radiation therapy. Through Northwestern Medicine Proton Center, Northwestern Medicine is the only health system in Illinois that offers proton therapy, which can provide high doses of radiation to the pancreas while sparing surrounding healthy tissues.
  • Chemotherapy. Medication can be given intravenously or orally to attack the tumor.
  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a treatment that attempts to mobilize your immune system to attack the cancer. Several options for pancreatic cancer are currently being investigated in clinical trials.

Multiple clinical trials are ongoing at Northwestern Medicine to help advance treatment options for pancreatic cancer, and improved treatment options are being investigated around the world. One particularly promising development comes from results of a trial conducted in Amsterdam, which suggest that treating patients who have pancreatic cancer with chemotherapy and radiation prior to surgery improved survival rates compared to those who underwent immediate surgery.

“At Northwestern Medicine, we have a team of specialists committed to discovering and delivering better treatment options to improve life expectancy for those who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” explains Dr. Merkow. “Anyone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer should make sure they are being cared for by a multidisciplinary group of experts that work together as a team to provide leading-edge care.”

A true multidisciplinary team includes more than just surgeons and oncologists, says Dr. Merkow. “Equally important are specialists in interventional gastroenterology, radiology, pathology, genetics, social work, nutrition and physical therapy, to name a few,” he explains. “Each member plays an integral role in patient care. We understand that at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.”