Researchers are working to advance our understanding of pancreatic cancer and to improve survivorship for patients, but it is very difficult to detect or to diagnose the disease in its early stages. Pancreatic cancer often develops without symptoms, and there is no widely used method for early detection.

“Year to year, we’re seeing more and more cases of pancreatic cancer, nationally. Why that is, I don’t think anyone really knows,” says Dr. Keith Wells, a medical oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute’s Corvallis clinic.

Although it’s believed that tobacco use, diabetes, obesity and a family history of the disease can increase a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer, few patients diagnosed with the disease have identifiable risk factors.

What is the function of the pancreas?

The pancreas is located behind the stomach next to the top of the small intestine, and it has two big jobs—to make digestive juices that help the intestines break down food, and to produce hormones, including insulin, that regulate the body’s use of sugars and starches.

Pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until it’s advanced and difficult to treat. In the vast majority of cases, symptoms only develop after pancreatic cancer has grown and begun to spread. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain: people may experience a dull ache in the upper abdomen radiating to the back that may come and go
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Jaundice

“What often happens is someone will wake up and notice their eyes and skin have started to turn yellow for no particular reason. They’re not experiencing any pain, but it’s very alarming,” says medical oncologist Dr. Jon Gross.

Pancreatic cancer is aggressive. Standard treatment for the disease typically consists of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or combinations of treatment, depending on the cancer stage.

“Out of all the types of cancer we’ve been researching, this has been one of the most difficult,” Dr. Gross says. “However, we have been making incremental improvements, particularly with chemotherapies.”

Investigational treatments

Several types of investigational treatments for pancreatic cancer are currently being studied in clinical trials, including:

  • New chemotherapy combinations
  • Targeted therapies that are designed to attack only specific places
  • Immunotherapy: drugs that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells

Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center is currently involved in two clinical trials testing new therapies for pancreatic cancer. Learn more here.

Doctors Gross and Wells agree that there’s still a lot of work to be done to successfully treat this disease for the increasing number of people being diagnosed each year.

“We’re starting to unravel some of the underpinnings and pathways of pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Wells says. “And I’m hopeful that when we understand those a bit more, we can find new avenues to treat patients better.”