Improved detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer provides hope

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By Elizabeth Chuck

The statistics for pancreatic cancer are dire: Only 9 percent of all patients survive longer than five years after their diagnosis. Notoriously hard to detect and treat, it’s the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

But experts say research is being done to improve both detection and the treatment approaches — providing a potential glimmer of hope for a disease that is diagnosed in nearly 57,000 people each year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society.

On Wednesday, longtime “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, 78, announced he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer — meaning the cancer has metastasized to other parts of his body. Trebek fits the profile of a pancreatic cancer patient in many ways: It’s typically diagnosed in older patients, about two-thirds of whom are 65 or older; it’s more common in men than in women; and it often is not diagnosed until late.

The vague early symptoms of pancreatic cancer — stomach ache, back pain — often are not taken seriously enough to make a diagnosis right away, said Dr. Anirban Maitra, scientific director of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Because the pancreas is deep inside the abdomen, patients do not feel a lump like they might in their breast with breast cancer or see a mole on their skin as with skin cancer, he said.