Pancreatic cancer is Australia’s third deadliest cancer, killing over 3,300 Australians a year, yet a new survey shows only one in ten Australians are aware of this.
Conducted by PanKind, the only foundation in Australia exclusively dedicated to pancreatic cancer, the survey also highlighted a concerning lack of knowledge about the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
Michelle Stewart, CEO of PanKind, said ‘One of the greatest challenges we face with pancreatic cancer is time. Sadly, pancreatic cancer has one of the worst survival rates of any cancer. Often when a patient is diagnosed, they are close to death.
‘This is largely because most patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already progressed too far for existing treatments to work,’ she said.
‘To give some perspective, while many more people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, more people die of pancreatic cancer due to a huge difference in survival rates – breast cancer has a 91% five-year survival rate, while for pancreatic cancer it is only 10.7%, dropping to just 6% for people who live in regional Australia,’ said Ms Stewart.
‘Yet our survey indicated that 88% of people thought breast cancer was the biggest killer. There is a huge gap in awareness, attention and understanding that needs to be addressed.’
PanKind’s survey also showed that over 50% of Australians are not aware of any signs or symptoms of pancreatic cancer, which can include yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, loss of appetite or unintended weight loss, abdominal pain that radiates to the back, dark-coloured urine, light-coloured stools and back pain.
Professor Chris Baggoley AO, the former Australian Chief Medical Officer, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2019, and considers himself one of the lucky ones due to ‘accidental’ early detection.
‘The difficulty is that early-stage pancreatic cancer rarely causes signs or symptoms, or they can be vague and come and go with varying severity for each person. My tumour was detected during a check-up for something completely unrelated and because it was detected early, I was lucky enough to actually have a treatment option,’ said Professor Baggoley.
‘This is not the case for the majority of patients. I always encourage people to listen to their body and go to their GP if anything feels off because the earlier pancreatic cancer is detected the greater chance you have treat it, which has a huge impact on survival rates.’
Like all cancers, pancreatic cancer arises due to mutations in a person’s DNA, either inherited or that have arisen over time, but exact causes of the disease are not well understood.
Risk factors may include smoking, obesity, heavy alcohol consumption, family history, pancreatitis, ethnicity and inherited genetic conditions. Seeing a genetics specialist may be recommended for some people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
New research projects
Despite the ruthlessness of the disease, pancreatic cancer has not received the attention of other diseases due to the low survival rates and the absence of many long-term survivors. It has trailed behind other cancers when it comes to funding for research.
For these reasons, PanKind has launched their Early Detection Initiative, working with the research community to improve early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. This initiative will involve increased focus and funding for projects that will allow the earlier detection of pancreatic cancer.
‘Currently, there is no established way to test or find pancreatic cancer early. If you have inoperable pancreatic cancer, 80% of patients only survive 6-12 months. We believe that early diagnosis offers the greatest hope to triple survival rates by 2030,’ said Michelle Stewart.
‘That is why we are extremely proud to launch the PanKind Early Detection Initiative and announce $465,000 in funding for two new research projects with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and The Jreissati Family Pancreatic Centre at Epworth, to increase the proportion of patients diagnosed with operable disease through early detection.
‘So many patients and families tell stories of a distressingly rapid timeframe from diagnosis to death from pancreatic cancer. We hope PanKind’s focus on improving early detection will ultimately save lives,’ said Ms Stewart.
Two new approaches
Professor Rachel Neale, Head of the Cancer Aetiology and Prevention Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, is the Principal Investigator for an exciting new approach to pancreatic cancer detection.
‘Unfortunately screening all Australians for pancreatic cancer is not a viable option,’ said Professor Neale.
‘Instead, we are looking to identify who is most at risk of pancreatic cancer and to determine whether monitoring this group would lead to better outcomes. Hopefully that will enable us to detect and treat pancreatic cancer earlier and learn more about the disease,’ she said.
‘To do this we will be linking the national data of thousands of patients who had pancreatic cancer over the last fifteen years. We will use sophisticated machine-learning methods to predict people’s risk of pancreatic cancer. By making the most of existing data we can hopefully understand more about the disease faster,’ said Professor Neale.
The second project is led by Associate Professor Andrew Metz at the Jreissati Family Pancreatic Centre at Epworth in Victoria. Funded in partnership with Tour De Cure, for the first time, the project brings together the disciplines of gastroenterology and endocrinology to unify their different perspectives of pancreatic disease.
Previous research has shown there is a link between pancreatic cancer and late onset diabetes, and understanding the specific factors that lead to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer for a small group of these people with diabetes, may provide a novel and cost-effective screening test.
‘We know malignant pancreatic disease is very difficult to diagnose,’ said Assoc. Prof. Metz. ‘We know there’s data that shows pancreatic cancer patients have presented to their GP a minimum of three to six times before pancreatic cancer has been considered. A cost effective screening test will likely save lives,’ he said.