Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Takes a Step Forward

A new drug combination has been shown to shrink tumors and extend patients’ lives. Learn the risk factors for this disease and what you can do to lower your odds.

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It’s hard to get around the fear that comes with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Not only is it hard to catch early, but it’s also known for being resistant to chemotherapy. These factors and more make pancreatic cancer the third deadliest cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). But there’s finally some new hope.

A new combination of cancer drugs called Folfirinix may extend patient’s lives and make surgery possible more often, according to a new study from the University of West Virginia in Morgantown.

The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, specifically looked at cases in which the patient’s pancreatic cancer was “borderline resectable,” which means that the tumor couldn’t be removed safely because of its proximity to important blood vessels.

"The way pancreatic tumors sit, they're [often] very close to several important blood vessels that you really can't live without. That's where chemotherapy comes into play," said West Virginia University surgical oncologist Brian Boone, M.D. "We try to shrink the tumor off of the vein [so it’s] removable by surgery."

Just over 300 patients met the criteria for the study and all received Folfirnox. Two-thirds responded well enough that they could then have their tumors surgically removed. What’s more, patients in the study lived an average of 22.2 months; typically, patients with these types of pancreatic tumors survive about 12 months, Dr. Boone said.

"There's no control group, but when you compare it to what we've historically seen in patients that are borderline resectable and that we take straight to surgery, Folfirnox resulted in better survival and better rates of resection," said Dr. Boone.

Pancreatic Cancer: How to Reduce Your Risk

The first step is to know what the main risk factors for pancreatic cancer are... and then to reduce the ones you have some control over. Here’s what the National Cancer Institute says is linked to pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Being very overweight
  • Having a history of diabetes or chronic pancreatitis, which is when your pancreas is inflamed
  • Having a family history of pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis
  • Having certain hereditary conditions, like multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1) syndrome, Lynch syndrome, von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome

While it’s true you can’t do much to change your DNA, you can make sure your doctors have your full medical and family histories and monitor you more closely for signs, like jaundice. As for the others, there are steps you can take to combat them, says the ACS. Here are some concrete actions that will reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer.

  1. Quit smoking. First thing’s first: If you smoke, you need to stop, ASAP. You know this. And you likely also know all the benefits that will come with it. It’s the doing that’s hard. So recruit every ounce of help you can. Start with your doctor, and check out this guide from the ACS.
  2. Get regular exercise. Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight are key in lowering your pancreatic cancer risk. That’s because excess weight results in more hormone production, experts say, putting excess risk on the pancreas. Thankfully, getting regular physical activity will help you reach your healthy weight goals. If you’re not exactly a fitness buff, that’s OK—start by finding an activity you enjoy, whether that’s hiking, swimming, or just walking around your neighborhood with your partner or a friend. Work your way up gradually until you’re meeting the recommended amount of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) per week.
  3. Eat well. A healthy diet will also help you maintain your weight and reduce your risk of other cancers, too. The ACS recommends a plant-based diet, which means a focus on whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables, beans, and poultry rather than red meat or processed foods.
  4. Cut your alcohol use. Some studies have shown heavy alcohol use increases your pancreatic cancer risk, according to the ACS. If you’re a heavy drinker, take steps to reduce your intake to moderate levels—that’s two or fewer drinks per day for men and one or fewer for women, per the Mayo Clinic. If you need help, start with this list of 11 ways to curb your drinking from Harvard Health. If your alcohol use is more severe, you can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s hotline anytime, day or night, at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)—they’ll give you confidential info and referrals to get treatment for alcohol abuse.

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