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Pancreatic Cancer: ‘Demystifying’ Its Bad Reputation

Pancreatic cancer has long been known as one of the most lethal forms of cancer. With the disease causing few symptoms, many patients don’t realize they’re affected until the cancer has advanced. Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

However, with advancements in technology in recent years, Horacio Asbun, M.D. [1], Chief of Hepatobiliary and Pancreas Surgery at Miami Cancer Institute [2], along with Govindarajan Narayanan, M.D. [3], Chief of Interventional Oncology, told Baptist Health’s Resource Live program [4] that survival rates are starting to climb and giving pancreatic cancer patients hope for the future.

The Reputation of Pancreatic Cancer

According to recent statistics, the number of people who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is “about 50,000 new patients,” says Dr. Narayanan. However, despite the numbers, the disease’s deadly reputation and its label as the “silent disease,” Dr. Asbun is reassuring patients that the “idea is not to scare people.”

“We want to show you all the different ways that there is hope for fighting this disease … they are advancing all the time thanks to efforts of these doctors and researchers around the world,” says Dr. Narayanan.

Diagnosis and the Importance of a Multidisciplinary Approach

When it comes to a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, due to of the location of the pancreas and the lack of symptoms, Drs. Asbun and Narayanan noted that the No. 1 challenge for doctors is a diagnosis at an early stage.

“Most of the time, by the time it’s diagnosed, the disease has probably already spread out of the pancreas. Even if it’s confined in the pancreas, it poses a challenge to surgeons because it surrounds the blood vessels in that area,” says Dr. Narayanan.

In a situation like this, having a multidisciplinary approach to determine the best treatment option for the patient is key, both Miami Cancer Institute experts agreed.

“As a team, we offer the patients multiple opinions,” says Dr. Asbun. “In the past, the surgeon was the one that usually made the decision if the patient goes to surgery or not, but now that’s totally obsolete.

“Together, we make a unified decision and the recommendation to the patient really gives the patient the opportunity to have a second, third, fourth, or fifth opinion right there from a single Center.”

Advancements in Technology to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

While surgery, radiation and chemotherapy may be the first cancer treatments that come to mind, interventional oncology has become an essential component of the multidisciplinary team approach to cancer care.

Unlike other ablation methods which use extreme heat or cold to kill tumor cells, Dr. Narayanan, the pioneer behind new techniques and researcher of innovative applications of technologies, serves as the lead investigator for irreversible electroporation (IRE), or NanoKnife, which uses electrical currents to destroy soft-tissue tumors.

“We’re able to place needles without the need to open the patient (minimally invasive procedure),” says Dr. Narayanan.

“Using CT scan guidance, the unique part about this technology is that it can be used in close proximity to blood vessels without hurting them,” he added.

With the first patient successfully treated in 2010, Dr. Narayanan says he’s “excited now to bring the first randomized control trial to look at the impact of this technology in pancreatic cancer to Miami Cancer Institute.”

The Importance of Positive Mindset Throughout a Cancer Diagnosis

“I think even with all that we offer and what we do, a patient’s mindset plays a huge role in how they respond to the treatment and to the cancer,” says Dr. Narayanan. “When we offer them potential solutions, which may or may not be available in other places, you are providing them with something to look forward to and something that can improve their mindset and help them get better.”

Dr. Asbun added, “We need to demystify the bad reputation of pancreatic cancer. I’m not saying that we need to be in denial … Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive cancer and yes, it’s still one of the worst cancers in terms of survival. However, we’re finally making changes.

“We’re at a crossroads … We’re making an impact and hope should be there all the time. Just make sure you have a good plan and you feel comfortable with the people that are treating you.”