November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, known to many as ‘PCAM”! It is our opportunity to shine a light on this disease, to elevate our voices to raise awareness, and provide educational information for our patients.
What is Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas, an organ in your abdomen that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produce hormones that help manage your blood sugar. There are several types of growths that can occur in the pancreas, including cancerous and noncancerous tumors. “Pancreatic cancer is responsible for 7% of cancer deaths in the United States and is a very aggressive cancer. Because Pancreatic Cancer usually isn’t diagnosed until much later in the course, it is typically at that point incurable. And because of that, I think the best thing we can do as a community is to try to prevent it from happening,” said Dr. Michael Hall, Radiation Oncologist at The Medical Group of South Florida.
There is no sure way to prevent pancreatic cancer. However, you can help lower your risk for pancreatic cancer by making healthy lifestyle choices, being careful if you work with chemicals, and seeing your doctor if you have any concerns.
- Stop smoking. If you smoke, try to stop. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you stop, including support groups, medications and nicotine replacement therapy. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain it. If you need to lose weight, aim for a slow, steady weight loss — 1 to 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a week. Combine daily exercise with a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains with smaller portions to help you lose weight.
- Choose a healthy diet. A diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may help reduce your risk of cancer.
Taking action to try to lower your risk for pancreatic cancer may also lower your risk for other cancers. For example, not smoking may also lower your risk for lung, esophageal, stomach, head, neck, bladder, and other cancers.
Talk with your doctor or nurse about steps you can take to lower your risk for pancreatic or other cancers. Here are some actions they may suggest:
- Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, stop.
- Lower the fat in your diet.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid too much weight gain and exercise regularly.
Pancreatic cancer’s exact causes are not well understood. About 10% of pancreatic cancers are considered familial or hereditary. Most pancreatic cancer happens randomly or is caused by things such as smoking, obesity, and age.
If you are a first-degree relative of someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Your family member with pancreatic cancer is strongly recommended to undergo genetic testing for inherited mutations. Other factors include:
- Long-standing diabetes
- Chronic and hereditary pancreatitis
- Race (ethnicity): African-American or Ashkenazi Jew
- Age: over the age of 60
- Gender: males slightly more likely
- Diets high in red and processed meats
This does not mean that everyone who has these risk factors will get pancreatic cancer or that everyone who gets pancreatic cancer has one or more of these.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often vague and may at first appear to be associated with other less serious and more common conditions. These often don’t occur until the disease is more advanced. They may include:
- Abdominal pain that radiates to your back
- Loss of appetite or unintended weight loss
- Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- Light-colored stools
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that’s becoming more difficult to control
- Blood clots
If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, we urge you to speak to your doctor immediately and reference pancreatic cancer.
A pancreatic tumor can only be seen on an imaging study such as computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). Then, the doctor gets a sample of the tumor tissue to figure out the exact diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer is usually treated with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The type of treatment depends on the stage of the tumor (how far it has spread) and how close it is to blood vessels. Your physician will help you weigh the treatment options as they relate to your age, overall health, and personal preferences.
- Surgery offers the best chance of controlling pancreatic cancer for a long time. But, most patients are diagnosed at later stages and are not eligible for surgery. Tests to find pancreatic cancer in the earliest stages are urgently needed. Another challenge is that pancreatic tumors are surrounded by a dense tissue layer, called the stroma. This makes it difficult for treatment to reach the tumor.
- Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep the tumors from growing. Some patients undergo radiation therapy in order to shrink tumors before surgery. Three types of radiation are typically used to treat pancreatic cancer: external beam therapy (EBT), stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) and proton therapy. Radiation therapies are often used in combination with surgery and/or chemotherapy.
- Chemotherapy treatment involves the use of drugs given by vein or orally to kill cancer cells or to keep them from dividing and multiplying. Chemotherapy may be used alone or in combination with radiation. Like radiation therapy, chemotherapy can ease symptoms and increase survival for patients with tumors that have spread (metastasized). Patients usually receive chemotherapy treatment sessions over a set period of time with breaks in between to alleviate potential side effects, such as abnormal blood-cell counts, fatigue, diarrhea, mouth sores, and a weakened immune system.
We’re Here to Help
You imagine the day you’re free of cancer, we’re here to help. That’s why the Medical Group of South Florida acquired The Halcyon™ radiotherapy system. This is one of the most advanced cancer-fighting machines -built to be quiet, fast, and very comfortable during treatment. It’s the latest, top-of-the-line technology made to deliver high-quality treatments and help you get closer to the day you are cancer-free.
Because of its versatility, Halcyon can be used to treat a wide range of cases, including pancreatic, lung, prostate, breast, head and neck, and many other forms of cancer. It delivers accurate radiotherapy, precisely targeting tumors with finely-shaped beams that minimize exposure of the surrounding healthy tissues and organs.
If you have concerns about a cancer diagnosis, please call (561) 622-6111 and make a consultation with Dr. Michael Hall, Radiation Oncologist at The Medical Group of South Florida. Dr. Michael Hall can help walk you through the various treatment options available to your unique situation.
Book a consultation with Dr. Hall today!