CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The problem with pancreatic cancer is there's not a good way to identify those who are at risk. When symptoms develop, it has often too late. UNC researchers believe they have found a way to spot cancer in the pancreas earlier than ever before.
Very little ever slowed Henry Hall down until about three years ago. At first, he thought he had a bad cold.
"It kept on and got worse and worse," Hall said.
Hall's doctor then noticed Hall's skin turning yellow.
"I walked in there and he told me, he said, 'You got something wrong with you besides a cold.' He said, 'You got something bad wrong with you,'" Hall said.
Ultrasound imaging and a CAT scan could not find the problem, but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at UNC Hospitals did.
"If we see something that's dark, that has a rim of brighter pancreas around it. We can be definitive -- this is pancreatic cancer," said UNC radiologist Dr. Richard Semelka.
Semelka led a study to test MRI's usefulness in finding small tumors in the pancreas. Patients in the study had one or more of the symptoms that point to pancreatic cancer -- mid-abdominal pain, sudden diabetes and the sudden development of jaundice.
Of those 27 patients identified with pancreatic cancer, eight of the patients' tumors were less than two centimeters in size, including Henry Hall's.
"We were able to offer him a complete cure by finding this tumor at this size, which is about 1.5 centimeters in size," Semelka said.
The best results are obtained from an MRI built within the last four years. UNC used a dynamic gadolinium-enhanced, 3-D gradient-echo MRI. Semelka said it provides thinner image slices with greater resolution. It takes a trained eye to spot cancerous tumors. People with pancreatic cancer live an average of nine months after they are diagnosed.
Semelka said the challenge to getting early diagnosis, even with MRI, is for people to recognize the symptoms and have MRI testing done as soon as possible. In the future, research may find genetic markers that show who is most at risk for pancreatic cancer. Then, qualified centers could offer real screening.