National Research and Local Alliance Efforts Keep Hope from Being Blown Away
John Rodda was sitting to dinner with his wife, Becky, when she noticed his eyes were bright yellow. Although he’d had a horrible stomachache a couple of weeks earlier, they didn’t realize it was anything serious.
Unknown to them, the Lakeland-based commercial contractor had a malignant tumor on the head of his pancreas. The location of that tumor, which blocked the bile duct, causing his eyes to turn yellow, may have saved his life. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in time to have surgery and successfully complete radiation as well as chemotherapy. It was July 2006.
Today, at 58, Rodda is one of only six percent to survive pancreatic cancer for at least five years. “He’s just a remarkably strong human being. He very rarely feels defeated. I think that truly helped him,” Becky says.
Robyn Ferguson’s husband Ken was 50 years old when he was diagnosed. He died in 2010, a year and 20 days later. “The whole time there wasn’t really a whole lot we could do,” says Ferguson, who later organized the Pancreatic Cancer Alliance of Polk County (PCAP), a non-profit advocacy group that raises funds for research. “It was too late for him to have surgery.”
Although he underwent chemotherapy and radiation, it didn’t really help. Many who develop other cancers are well because of chemo and radiation, she notes, “but for pancreatic cancer I have not seen the effect. We need some better treatments.” Like Ferguson, most in the PCAP have lost loved ones to the disease. Her core group of 10 were “blindsided,” Ferguson shares. Pancreatic cancer deaths rank fourth among cancer deaths in the United States, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN), a Manhattan Beach, California, organization. By 2020, it is expected to be the number two killer.
In Polk County, the death rate for pancreatic cancer rose one percent between 2006 and 2010, National Cancer Institute data shows. The death rate averages 77 per year.
The state average death rate climbed half that amount, the data shows, while the uterus cancer death rate rose 4.1 percent. Overall the cancer death rate declined 1.4 percent in Florida, the data reveals, with prostate cancer deaths dropping 3 percent and lung/bronchus cancer falling 2.2 percent.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include a family history of it, pancreatitis, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. “It has been suggested that diets high in fat, decreased physical activity, drinking coffee, and drinking alcohol can increase a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, this is the trend in the developing world,” says Dr. Arvind Soni, director of Radiation Oncology at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa and Polk County Medical Association president.
If you smoke, quitting is one good way to reduce your odds. “Smoking increases the risk of many cancers besides lung cancer. Smokers have double the risk of developing pancreatic cancer compared to non-smokers,” says Dr. Soni, who also recommends less fat, eating fruits and vegetables, and increasing physical activity.
Pancreatic cancer is more difficult to detect, at least in part, because the pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, PCAN officials say. “Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive disease. Treatment is usually a multimodality therapy which includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. There are several ways people around the world are trying to advance the treatment of pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Soni, who has been treating pancreatic cancer patients for more than 15 years.
More aggressive chemotherapy combinations, and a viral therapy relying on genetically engineered viruses to attack cancers, are being investigated, Dr. Soni reports.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) is funding 38 projects at $22.1 million, according to Chris Green, its senior director of Media Relations in Virginia Beach, VA. Scientists are learning about what makes pancreas cells become cancerous. They have learned the cancer develops in steps, and are using this information to test for non-inherited genetic changes.
Working to improve surgery and radiation therapy are major goals, according to ACS’s Pancreatic Cancer guide. They also are looking at immune therapies, drugs targeting molecules that help cancer grow, and drugs aimed at starving cancer cells by blocking the growth of blood cells that nourish them.
Only a few weeks ago, University of Missouri (UM) announced a more accurate laboratory method for diagnosing the disease. By examining records from 57 patients at UM Health Care, researchers developed a group of four characteristics that allow pathologists to diagnose pancreatic cancer with 93 percent accuracy, up from approximately 85 to 89 percent achievable by experienced pathologists, reports Dr. Lester Layfield, professor and chair of MU School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences. “I believe this new technique can help pathologists improve the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, ultimately improving care for patients by providing an evidence-based approach to diagnosing the disease and determining the best treatment,” Dr. Layfield says.
Four features of pancreatic cancer researchers identified are: 1) a wide variation in size of pancreatic cells’ nuclei, called anisonucleosis; 2) oversized nucleoli, called macronucleoli; 3) single atypical epithelia cells, a cell found in the pancreas; and 4) mucinous metaplasia, the production of mucin in cells that normally don’t produce it.
And a teenager, Jack Andraka, has come up with a simple test intended to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages. “What Jack Andraka has been working on has promise, not only in detecting cancer, but also to detect proteins from many other diseases including heart disease and human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS),” Dr. Soni says. “His main breakthrough besides finding a protein that indicates certain cancers, [. . . is] a paper sensor that costs three cents. A good screening tool must be inexpensive and available everywhere. We will need to wait and see how this tool develops and if it works outside the lab.”
Ferguson, whose group recently raised $15,000 to $20,000 through a bike ride fundraiser, also is enthusiastic about Andraka’s efforts. “That’s what we could be really excited about,” she says.
Survivors like Rodda, meanwhile, continue to offer hope to those battling the disease or its after effects. Rodda who underwent the extensive Whipple procedure, is back to work as president of Rodda Construction, with no evidence of cancer. He no longer puts in 12-hour work days like he used to, but he stays positive as he deals with digestion issues from his surgery. “We just deal with them,” Becky says, “His faith has kept him strong [. . .] He’s been on so many prayer lists over the years [. . .] When they say he’s on the prayer list, he says, ‘Don’t stop. Keep on praying.’”
Donations for pancreatic cancer research can be made at pcap.kintera.org
story By CHERYL ROGERS