The silent disease

Pancreatic cancer strikes with little or no warning

Pancreatic cancer strikes with little or no warning

May 01, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

If all had gone according to plan, Patricia Firey would find out sometime this month that she has pancreatic cancer.

But all didn't go according to plan.

By a fluke, Firey had a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) scan of her pancreas in February instead of waiting for her appointment later this month. That fluke might save her life, she says.

The MRCP scan - a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - showed that Firey, 65, a Clear Spring-area resident, might have pancreatic cancer. A biopsy confirmed the scan results.

Firey was told her cancer is inoperable because the tumor is too close to a major vein. She is enduring chemotherapy and radiation treatment to shrink the malignant tumor growing in the middle of her pancreas.


Her doctors hope that, if they can shrink the tumor, they can operate to remove the cancer, giving Firey a new lease on life.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of Firey's cancer discovery is that she never had any symptoms, any pain or any warning signs that something was not right with her body, she says.

Pancreatic cancer is sometimes called "the silent disease," because it is not uncommon for cancerous growths on the pancreas to remain undetected, says Sandra Hoffman, associate scientist and assistant director of the Hagerstown-based George W. Comstock Center for Public Health Research and Prevention. The research center does research on many different types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer.

Each year, more than 33,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, according to information from the National Cancer Institute. Although it is not the most common, cancer of the pancreas is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in men and the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women.

Pancreatic cancer is especially lethal because it is so hard to diagnose and there are no effective early detection methods, explains Dr. Sanjay Jagannath, assistant professor of medicine and gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That means, by the time pancreatic cancer is discovered, it is usually in advanced stages.

"Unfortunately, there is no good single, diagnostic test," he says.

Fonda Phillips, 40, of Mercersburg, Pa., remembers what it was like when her family found out her father, Harold Phillips, had pancreatic cancer in 2004.

She remembers researching on the Internet to learn more about the cancer and the pancreas.

"It was just nothing but grim, staggering statistics," Phillips says. "I can remember just sitting at my computer, crying, thinking that my dad is going to die. That was hard, knowing that from the very start you were given very little hope."

The American Cancer Society estimates that three out of four pancreatic cancer patients will die in their first year of diagnosis. Only about one in 25 patients survive for five or more years after diagnosis.

Harold Phillips, then 64, spent his days after his diagnosis putting his life and his retirement plans into order. He took his wife, Kay, on an anniversary trip and enjoyed the holidays and his golf outings.

"He learned how to enjoy every minute and he was glad that he didn't wait to do things," Fonda Phillips says of her father. "I think the hardest thing to watch with my dad is that he knew he was dying."

Harold Phillips died Feb. 22, 2005, 10 months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His wife and two daughters were with him in their Clear Spring home.

The Phillips family is hoping to spread the word about pancreatic cancer and is supporting efforts to raise more money for pancreatic cancer awareness and research.

Pancreatic cancer "has always been an orphan disease to some extent," says Dr. Michael McCormack, a medical oncologist at the John Marsh Cancer Center in Hagerstown. "It's a disease that's always been very difficult to diagnosis early, very difficult to treat, very poor prognosis."

Research efforts are focusing on finding ways to diagnose the cancer earlier.

"It's important to know that there is a lot of research being done," Jagannath says. "They are trying to be very aggressive in treating these folks."

The most recent information about pancreatic cancer states that about 20 percent of cases are hereditary, Jagannath says. "I think that's really important new information," he says. "If you have a strong family history (of pancreatic cancer), then you are at increased risk. Your physician should know about that."

Currently, the only way to detect signs that there might be pancreatic cancer is to undergo a computerized tomography scan or an MRI. The problem is that it's not realistic to rely on such expensive technology to diagnose a rare disease, especially when there are no symptoms, doctors say. However, for people who have a family history of pancreatic cancer, getting periodic scans might be something to talk about with primary care physicians, Jagannath says.

While there are some factors believed to increase the risk of developing pancreatic cancer, why some people develop cancer and others do not remains a big mystery.

"The whys of cancer are so tough," McCormack says. When pancreatic cancer patients ask him why they developed this disease he tells them: "There is absolutely nothing that you did or didn't do. You were just unlucky."

The Herald-Mail Articles