Nebraska doctor says more research needed for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer continues to be one of the deadliest cancers in the U.S., prompting some to ask why more money is not set aside for research. (Photo by John Beck, NET Television)
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April 2, 2015 - 6:45am

This week, NET is focusing on Living with Cancer in Nebraska. NET News reports on one Omaha woman’s fight with pancreatic cancer, the fourth deadliest cancer in the United States.

Meet Georgianna Brown

Georgianna Brown is an upbeat, charismatic African-American woman living in Omaha. She won’t tell people how old she is, saying she feels young. She worked for Omaha Public Power District for 27 years, and she also has lots of nieces and nephews 

“Oh! We’re talking a lot,” Brown said, chuckling, “Let me see, we might be talking as many as 20.”

Brown is retired now and said she feels great, but that wasn’t the case just four years ago. In the summer of 2011, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“I was angry. I was very, very angry. I couldn’t understand why this had to happen to me. I did things always in moderation, never to extremes,” Brown said, “I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, and I couldn’t understand why this had to happen to me.”

In the video below, watch Georgianna explain her journey from diagnosis to living cancer free

Can a diagnosis be lucky?

The pancreas is a small, banana-shaped organ which helps in digestion and hormone secretion.  The tumor in Geogianna Brown’s pancreas was in just the right spot to also make her jaundiced.

“People were telling me ‘your eyes are yellow and your skin is glowing, like a yellow tint to your skin’ and I didn’t notice it. I had no knowledge of it,” Brown said.

Had her skin and eyes not changed color, Brown said she probably wouldn’t be alive today, because that’s the only reason she went to the doctor. Other than the jaundice, Brown said she felt fine.

Georgianna Brown was lucky. Most people diagnosed with the most common pancreatic cancer, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, are dead within a year.

By the Numbers

Dr. Sarah Thayer is the physician and chief, as well as the associate director, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Buffett Cancer Center.

She said in 2013, UNMC treated 133 pancreatic cancer patients. That same year, 142 Nebraskans died of pancreatic cancer, making it the fifth deadliest cancer in the state.  

“It’s a rare cancer if you think about it,” Dr. Thayer said. “Only approximately 42,000 cases will be diagnosed this year. Unfortunately 38,000 people will die of pancreatic adenocarcinoma this year. The five year survivability of all comers is about six percent at five years.”

Quitting smoking is the only sure way to lower your chances of getting pancreatic cancer, according to Thayer, but little else is known about how to prevent it.

When it comes to all cancers, blacks have higher mortality rates than whites or other minorities. However, Thayer said white males appear to be more at risk of getting pancreatic cancer, but she said we just don’t know for sure.

Before it's too late

One of the reasons why pancreatic cancer is so deadly is because there is no effective early screening method for it. Even if there was, Thayer said doctors wouldn’t know who to screen, because there hasn’t been enough research to define who is and isn’t at risk of getting it.

“So unfortunately what that means is approximately 80 percent of our patients that actually present to us with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, present at a stage where they’re not curable. And that’s one of the main reasons we’ve had such difficulty moving that five year survivorship,” Dr. Thayer explained.

Thayer said the only real way to improve survivability of pancreatic cancer is through further research. Historically, she said pancreatic cancer has been vastly underfunded compared to other deadly forms of cancer.

For instance, in 2013 the National Cancer Institute allotted $101 million for pancreatic cancer research, the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. That same year, the NCI allotted more than five times as much--$559 million-- to breast cancer research, the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

Thayer said in the world of cancer, research is hope.

The 10 year survivability of a woman diagnosed with breast cancer has more than tripled since the 1940’s, going from about 25 percent to around 80 percent, depending on which study you look at.

Implementation of findings would be fast

Thayer said if we can raise the same sort of awareness for pancreatic cancer as there is for breast and prostate cancer, whatever results researchers find can be quickly implemented into treatments.

“Our patients move through the disease process very quickly, and if we found something that had a meaningful impact into the biology—meaning treatment and outcomes—we would be able to tell almost immediately, because most of our patients will die," Thayer said. "Those 80 percent that don’t have any chance for surgical resection and potential for cure, their median for survival is anywhere from 6 months to 12 months.”

Without putting more money into research, Thayer said it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to cure pancreatic cancer.

Survivor turned Advocate

Georgianna Brown said she knows the best way she can help others diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is to speak out about her own experiences and let them know their diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

“I feel like a lot of people aren’t aware of this particular illness, that isn’t to one gender, or one group or one race,” Brown said.

“I just feel like this is a very important cause and it’s very dear to my heart and since I’ve made it through, I feel like I’m very blessed, and I should share as much of my knowledge and experiences with them because it is very frightening for you. I know it was for me,” Brown said.

With more research, Brown said perhaps the fear of a pancreatic cancer diagnoses will be wiped away by the knowledge of a cure.

NET is producing an hour-long special, Living With Cancer in Nebraska, that will premiere at 7 p.m. (CT) Friday, April 3, on NET1.  For more information visit our special website dedicated to this cancer project.



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