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In the Pink Shadow: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month Needs the Spotlight Now

Pancreatic-cancer-awareness-monthWitheach passing year the month of November loses more and more respect. On paperit looks good – All Saint’s, All Soul’s, Veteran’s and Election Day come rightin a row within the first two weeks. But poor Thanksgiving. For severalcenturies it rose through the ranks as one of the most distinctly “American”and popular of celebrations, becoming themost travelled holiday in the U.S.   

Free from religiousassociation, Thanksgiving holds huge cross-cultural appeal. Sadly, what was theunofficial demarcation line between the fall and winter holiday seasons isbecoming swamped out by Christmas and Black Friday insanity. Thanks to apersistently poor economy and expanding retail store hours, Thanksgivingdoesn’t even get a full day to celebrate anymore.

Things don’t lookmuch better for November in the non-retail arena either. Any health observancesheld during the 11th month are totally overshadowed by the BigPink:  October and Breast CancerAwareness month. Seriously... how many people realize or care that the AnnualGreat American Smoke Out has come and gone? I don’t want to pick on October. Theblow-up in breast cancerawarenessand research funding over the past 30 year is incredibly inspiring. But can weplease give Pancreatic CancerAwareness Monthsome love?

Pancreatic cancer is the fourthleading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Approximately 44,000 people will bediagnosed with it this year alone and 38,000 will die from the disease. Sadly,because of the pancreas’ hidden location in the body, cancer is often diagnosedat a late stage, making it one of the deadliest forms of cancer. It’s this abilityto elude detection that gives pancreatic cancer a reputation as a certain deathsentence.

The pancreas, located behind the stomach,plays an essential role in converting the food we eat into energy to fuel ourbody’s cells. It has two main functions; to secrete enzymes to aid in thedigestion of protein, fat and carbohydrates, and to create and release insulin,the hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar and glucagon, a hormone thatraises blood sugar. With its hidden position in abdomen, and general earlysymptoms (loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, upper abdominal and backpain) pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect unless purposely being lookedfor or until more serious symptoms (blood clots, jaundice – yellowing of theskin and whites of the eyes) arise.

Manyin this country probably only became aware of pancreatic cancer for the firsttime when actor Patrick Swayze or Apple CEO, Steve Jobs were diagnosed. Neitherof whom are alive today, which only reinforces the following:  pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rateof all cancers. Its victims have only a five percent chance of surviving thefirst five years after diagnosis.

Five percent. That’s it.

Anyone who has had a loved with pancreaticcancer understands how crushing that five percent is. We know what it feelslike to be completely blindsided and helpless since in most cases there is solittle anyone can do once a diagnosis is finally declared. In the spring 2008 myown mother went to the doctor’s office for a routine cardiac stress test andnever came home. In the end it wasn’t the three arterial blockages andangioplasties that got her. Nor was it the stroke that followed the stentplacement of her third angioplasty. It was pancreatic cancer. But we wouldn’t knowthat until weeks later.

After her stroke the doctors assured us thatother than a partial loss of peripheral vision in her right eye, Mom would makea 99 percent recovery. And indeed at first it did seem she would. Only 24 hoursafter her stroke, as doctors predicted, the swelling of her brain was greatly reducedand she was “Mom” again, her memory thankfully intact along with her ability tospeak and move. However, after weeks of no further rehabilitation progress,loss of appetite, random vomiting and total lethargy, an ominous blood clot – atelltale sign of pancreatic cancer – bloomed on her left calf. Less than threeweeks later, she was gone.

I think the most upsetting part of Mom’sordeal was that here was someone who saw her primary care physician,endocrinologist and two other specialists religiously. She did not missappointments or skip prescribed medication. She didn’t drink, nor smoke (neverdid), ate a proper, well-balanced diet and was very active. How could somethingso serious go undetected for so long?

Don’t get me wrong…I wasn’t blaming anyonefor not catching it sooner. Working in the field of medicine and health care mywhole adult career, I was quite familiar with pancreatic cancer’s bad reputation.I just want to see pancreatic cancer, along with its symbolic purple ribbon, getthe exposure and attention it so clearly needs.

So what’sbeing done right here, right now to fight against pancreatic cancer?

Earlierthis month representatives from the Joan Karnell Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital, PennsylvaniaOncology and Hematology Associates, the Department of Surgery and Radiation Oncology participated in Purple Stride 2012Philadelphiato help raise awareness and funds in the fight against pancreatic cancer.Sponsored by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network® and held in Fairmount Park,the 5K walk and timed run raised over $500,000.

Also in attendance that Saturday was Lisa Niemi Swayze, chief Ambassadorof Hope of the Pancreatic CancerAction Network.Swayze joined the Network as its first celebrity spokesperson in honor of herlate husband Patrick, who died in 2009 – after a nearly two-year battle withthe disease. It’s chilling to read about her husband’s diagnosis on her website:“In 2008, when my husband, Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,I didn’t knowmuch about the disease, but hedid. And he said to me, ‘I’m a dead man.’” 

Lisa Swaize - Pancreatic Cancer WalkSwayze is determined to keep fighting toincrease government funding toward pancreatic cancer research and education, aswell as raise funds to develop new technology and therapies to improvediagnosis, treatment and prevention.

ChiefAmbassador of Hope, Lisa Niemi Swayze (shown here speaking) joined the Philly eventon honor of her late husband, Patrick Swayze, who died from pancreatic cancerin 2009.

 On the local and national front, there’s Stand Up to Cancer, a groundbreaking partnershipbetween our nation’s entertainment industry and cancer research communityworking to raise funds to accelerate the pace of trailblazingtranslational research. The ultimate goal is to get new, effective therapies topatients quicker and save lives.

Stand Up facilitates collaboration among thebest and the brightest in the cancer research community, including members fromPenn Medicine’s Abramson CancerCenter.

Three yearsafter Stand Up to Cancer first announced the formation of a group of scientific“Dream Teams” to overcome some of the thorniest cancer treatment and researchchallenges, the Abramson Cancer Center is well on its way to delivering on thepromise innovative therapies. Armed with $18 million in funding, a group ofPenn Medicine investigators who are a key part of the Pancreatic Cancer DreamTeam are leading the nation’s most innovative pancreatic cancerresearch projects,which together have enrolled more than a thousand patients – nearly half thenumber who are participating in clinical trials for the disease nationwide atany time.

So far,Abramson researchers and clinicians have helped lead five clinical trials aspart of this initiative. Be sure to check out this inspiring story that airedon CBS3, EyewitnessNewsto see how Stand Up to Cancer is making a positive impact on pancreatic cancerpatients, right here in Philadelphia.

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