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Health Team

Pancreatic cancer tough to detect, cure

Posted October 17, 2011 5:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2011 6:53 p.m. EDT

Many cancers have survivors who speak out for awareness and increased funding for research. Popular campaigns across the country raise money for types of pediatric cancer, breast cancer and other forms of the disease and often times it’s the survivors leading the charge.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many survivors of pancreatic cancer. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, lived longer than most before he died Oct. 5.

For Peggy Switzer, 77, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, each day is a blessing.

Switzer went to the doctor after she started feeling sick in the summer of 2009. After blood tests, CT and MRI scans, she was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, the most common form of the disease.

“I started having problems with appetite and metallic taste in my mouth and nausea,” she said.

Switzer’s tumor could have been removed if it hadn’t been surrounding a group of blood vessels. Since her diagnosis, Switzer’s been going to chemotherapy every two weeks.

Most patients with adenocarcinoma, which makes up 95 percent of all cases, die within a year.

“The chemotherapy keeps me in remission, but I don’t know how long that will be,” Switzer said.

Pancreatic cancer is tougher than other forms of the disease because there is no effective screening process. There aren’t clear risk factors and too few people get it to find patterns for doctors to look for.

The pancreas, which sits behind the stomach, secretes insulin to digest sugars and enzymes to digest fats and protein.

Switzer’s doctor, Neeraj Agrawal, a hematologist and oncologist at the Cancer Centers of North Carolina, said the major issue is finding effective ways to screen patients.

“The second problem with screening is that even when the cancer is detected early, the cure rate is not good,” he said.