May 20, 2008 -- For people at high risk of pancreatic cancer, innovative approaches to screening and surveillance are helping to catch tumors earlier, when they're more treatable.
The tests are already available at many major academic medical centers throughout the country. Researchers hope the new findings will help increase testing of high-risk patients who can gain the most benefit -- typically people whose relatives have had pancreatic cancer.
Currently, most people survive only months from diagnosis; only 4% survive five years. The reason: Pancreatic cancer symptoms typically don't develop until the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas and surgical removal of the cancer is no longer possible, says Mark P. Callery, MD, associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and chief of the division of general surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Early detection can mean improved survival, and "now we're finding that with screening of people at high risk -- those with first- or second-degree relatives with the cancer -- we may have an impact on outcomes," Callery says.
If detected early, when still confined to the pancreas, the five-year survival rate can be as high as 33%.
Callery moderated a media briefing to discuss the findings at Digestive Disease Week 2008 in San Diego.
An estimated 37,680 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society. About 34,290 Americans will die of the disease, making it the fourth deadliest cancer.
In one new study, a combination of ultrasound and specialized X-rays helped to detect the cancer earlier in people with two or more family members with pancreatic cancer.
The findings are important because at least 10% of pancreatic cancer is inherited, says Teresa A. Brentnall, MD, associate professor of medicine at the division of gastroenterology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
First, the patients were given an endoscopic ultrasound, which involves passing a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) into a patient's gastrointestinal tract. A tiny ultrasound probe at its tip produces high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) that create images of surrounding tissue.