By Allison Takeda
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States, but it could move up to the second as early as 2015, according to a new report from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a national organization for pancreatic cancer research and advocacy.
Using information from the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results database, along with a report on the status of cancer from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts at PanCan identified trends in both cancer diagnoses and prognoses. They estimate that in 2030, there could be as many as 94,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer, representing more than a two-fold increase over the current rate of 44,000 new cases annually.
Incidence rates for other cancers may also increase, but because of advances in early detection and treatment, death rates for most cancer types will actually decrease. Pancreatic cancer is an exception: According to PanCan's projections, more than 88,000 people will die from the disease in 2030, compared with 37,000 in 2012. This means that within the next decade, "the number of deaths from pancreatic cancer will exceed those from breast and colorectal cancer, and be surpassed only by the loss of life from lung cancer," the report states.
The "data suggest the startling conclusion that pancreatic cancer will leap to become the second leading cause of cancer death before 2020, and possibly as early as 2015, only three years from now."
Why Pancreatic Cancer Is So Deadly
Pancreatic cancer is already among the deadliest cancers, with an overall five-year relative survival rate of just 6 percent. Early detection improves the odds a little, but even patients diagnosed at stage IA have a five-year survival rate of only 14 percent, and most cases are discovered much later than that.
In fact, 53 percent of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed after the disease has already spread, in part because there's no easy way to screen for it. The pancreas is nestled deep within the abdomen and surrounded by other organs, so tumors can't be seen or felt during routine exams.
Physicians at the Mayo Clinic in Florida have had some success detecting early pancreatic cancers by simply shining a light into the small intestine -- a technique known as polarization gating spectroscopy -- but their findings are preliminary. More research needs to be completed before the technology can be used widely, and in the meantime, there's no effective substitute.
There's also very little funding. Though pancreatic cancer is among the top five cancer killers in the United States, it accounts for just 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute's total budget.
PanCan hopes to change that. Last year, the organization set a goal to double the pancreatic cancer survival rate by 2020. PanCan experts worked with Congress to develop the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act, a bill designed to increase resources and create a federally supported plan for pancreatic cancer research.
"Pancreatic cancer does not need to be the death sentence that it is for most patients today," the PanCan experts write. "By understanding the findings outlined in this report and heeding the warnings they offer, we can change the statistics and the course of this disease."