Cancer care is more powerful and precise than ever. Advanced genomic testing gives doctors a more in-depth look at malignant cells and the gene mutations or biological qualities that may be contributing to a tumor’s growth. Furthermore, targeted therapies have been developed to attack cell mutations more accurately. Unlike solely conventional cancer treatments, immunotherapy and holistic solutions spare healthy cells.
Despite the innovations in cancer diagnosis and treatment, one common cancer that continues to perplex oncologists and researchers is pancreatic cancer.
Cancer that arises in the pancreas is extremely difficult to have. To make matters more complex and vexing, pancreatic cancer can be very hard to treat, according to Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, Vice Chairman at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Why are pancreatic cancer cells so resilient?
Pancreatic cancer cells are resilient and elusive. They produce tumors that entangle themselves into surrounding tissue and blood vessels, which makes surgical removal a challenge. Plus, they create a layer of protection around the tumor, giving the cancerous mass a shield that blocks or reduces the effectiveness of certain therapies.
“Pancreatic cancer cells are able to survive a lot of things—radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and having no oxygen or blood supply,” revealed Loaiza-Bonilla. “They can survive for a long time.”
Why is pancreatic cancer difficult to treat?
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most commonly occurring cancers in the United States. About 57,000 people receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis each year, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society. The five-year relative survival rate for a patient with this malignancy is less than 10 percent. The average age of diagnosis is 70, and the average age of a patient who dies from the disease is 72.
The number of cases and deaths from pancreatic cancer has remained consistent over the last 25 years, even as breakthrough treatments and drugs for other cancers have resulted in positive outcomes. The lack of progression frustrates doctors and scientists alike. “It is multifaceted,” said Loaiza-Bonilla. “There is not one reason why this cancer is difficult to treat, but several.”
Here are the reasons why pancreatic cancer is challenging to treat:
- Late diagnosis
More than half of pancreatic cancer patients receive a stage IV diagnosis, mainly because the disease produces almost no symptoms in its early stages. “Pancreatic cancer is a silent cancer,” revealed Loaiza-Bonilla. By the time an oncologist detects pancreatic cancer, in many cases, it has already metastasized (spread) to the liver or other parts of the body.
If pancreatic cancer symptoms occur, the early warning signs may include:
- Dark urine
- Digestive issues
- Weight loss
Additional symptoms may include:
- Abdominal or back pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or whites of the eyes)
- Abdominal swelling or bloating
- Constant and extreme fatigue
Furthermore, since the pancreas produces insulin that assists in regulating blood sugar levels, a diagnosis of diabetes may also signal pancreatic cancer.
- Inoperable pancreatic tumors
Pancreatic cancer is especially invasive in the abdominal area and often cannot be completely removed during surgery. “When pancreatic cancer is detected, it is mostly advanced, taking over the blood vessels in the back of the belly,” explained Loaiza-Bonilla. Thus, a surgical oncologist may struggle to remove the tumor due to the involvement of vital blood vessels.
- Shield of armor
As mentioned, pancreatic cancer cells create a layer of protection or “cocoon” of collagen fibers around the malignant tumor, which helps shield it from certain treatments. These fibers act like scar tissue, forming when cancer cells begin producing enzymes that damage healthy tissue and lead to the formation of collagen that eventually surrounds the tumor. This process is called desmoplasia or desmoplastic reaction, and it occurs in several other cancer types.
“The collagen grows around the tumor, which is still growing and inflicting damage,” according to Loaiza-Bonilla. “Meanwhile, the immune system and chemotherapy sessions can barely make it through the barrier because it is too hard to penetrate.”
- Biomarkers with no targets
Cancer biomarkers are genetic attributes or mutations in cells that may contribute to the growth of a malignant tumor. The identification of some cancer biomarkers has led researchers to the discovery of targeted therapy and immunotherapy drugs that attack those biomarkers. Mutations in the TP53 and KRAS genes, two of the most prevalent markers found in tumors, often stimulate the growth and progression of pancreatic tumors. Any existing targeted therapy drugs may have difficulty attacking those gene mutations.
- No immune response
Although some tumors have dormant immune cells (lymphocytes) that immunotherapy drugs may awaken, pancreatic cancer cells are low in immunogenicity, which means the chance of them generating an immune response is low. “There are not a lot of lymphocytes in the tissue,” revealed Loaiza-Bonilla. Due to the few immune cells in the tumor and the protective barrier that prevents immune cells from penetrating a malignant pancreatic tumor, immunotherapy drugs may not always be a treatment option for some pancreatic cancer patients.
Is there new hope for the future of pancreatic cancer treatment?
As persistent as pancreatic tumors are to resisting treatment, so are scientists in searching for new treatments. In recent years, science has cracked the code on some of pancreatic cancer’s biggest mysteries, offering new hope that the era of targeted therapies and precision medicine can make an impact on the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.
What about the present?
Some might say that the present is already quite bright for many pancreatic cancer patients. If you or someone you love is living with this disease, just know that there are other options aside from conventional cancer treatments. New Hope Unlimited is an authority in comprehensive cancer care, which combines conventional and alternative therapies to penetrate the root of pancreatic cancer development.
To reverse your pancreatic cancer symptoms, enhance your overall quality of life, and improve your chances of a good prognosis, call us at 480-757-6573 to schedule your consultation with one of our specialists. You may also review the stories of our cancer survivors if you wish to learn more about how life-changing our solutions to cancer can be.