Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month

In addition to lung cancer, November is pancreatic cancer awareness month.  It is interesting that as we approach the holidays, we are reminded of two of the most deadly cancers in our country.  Pancreatic cancer is currently the third leading cause of cancer death in the US.  As many of you know, pancreatic cancer is near to my heart.

I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer in 2012.  He was 68 years old which is the mean age of diagnosis for this disease.  He was diagnosed about 3 months after his retirement.  It was the classic story of a physician who worked hard his whole career, loved his work, loved his patients, and especially loved working with his family.

You see, we had a family business.  My dad went out on his own early in his career as a general surgeon.  There wasn't a true office back then.  He saw his patients in a room at the hospital, brought home the billing sheets, and my mother sent out the invoices.  I remember having to do the filing as a young girl when my mother posted the payments. Our dining room was her office.

The practice grew.  He got an office and employees. My mom played various roles throughout his career including office manager.  I became his partner while my other siblings became involved as well.  I had the privilege of being his partner for 11 years.  My brother assisted us in surgery.  It was his dream.

We had a great business and a great team.  The cancer diagnosis seemed like a huge kick in the teeth.  I remember feeling devastated.  My dad didn't deserve to die after working so hard for all of those years.

However, he took it in stride.  He lived with his diagnosis.  I mean he really lived.  He still took his trips, he enjoyed his hobbies and he spent time with his family.  I learned so much from that time, and I believe it has made me a better physician.

So what can you do if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer?  I often wonder as I turned 50 this month.  Unfortunately, there are no screening guidelines for pancreatic cancer.  However, if my dad were diagnosed today, he would be offered genetic testing.

Pancreatic cancer has now been linked to several genetic mutations, most notably BRCA 1 and 2.  All patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer today should be offered genetic testing which could influence treatment and have impact on their families.

If you have a strong family history of pancreatic cancer (two or more family members), ask your doctor for a referral to a gastroenterologist who performs endoscopic ultrasound. This test may be considered for patients 50 and older who have a strong family history.

Secondly, know the symptoms. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Turning yellow
  • Dark or orange urine
  • Light colored stool
  • Back or abdominal pain

Please remember those who are touched by this disease.  It is one that we physicians often find too late and have a difficult time curing.  As we continue to learn more, I am confident we will be able to detect this cancer earlier.