According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 56,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and 45,000 of them will not survive. The deadly disease often spreads very quickly and usually isn’t detected until its too late. Most physicians treat pancreatic cancer with chemotherapy and radiation in the hopes that they’ll be able to eventually surgically remove the tumor, but that approach has a low success rate. But there may be hope for those diagnosed with the disease after all, as the Mayo Clinic has begun using an approach that may be effective against many stage-3 diagnoses.
Because pancreatic cancer grows in ways that compromises critical arteries and organs, surgery isn’t often an option. But Dr. Mark Truty, surgical oncologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says that or many patients, “surgery is worth the risk.”
This was the case with Bill Bastian, a 69-year-old Minnesota man who was diagnosed with stage-3 pancreatic cancer in 2015. Although his cancer had not yet spread to other organs, it had invaded a critical artery outside his pancreas that made it “inoperable” by his doctor.
Having been told he’d have 15 months to live, Bastian sought a second opinion. Dr. Truty at Mayo Clinic gave him a completely different outcome. He told Bastian that his tumor could be surgically removed, and that it was possible he could live for much longer.
Although most doctors hope that radiation or chemotherapy will shrink pancreatic tumors enough to pull away from the compromised artery or vein, Truty doesn’t agree. His approach at Mayo Clinic differs from most other cancer treatment centers, but it has shown positive results.
The Mayo Clinic treatment involves giving patients extensive, tailored chemotherapy to help reduce levels of a tumor marker called CA 19-9. Once that level is in a normal range, and a PET scan shows that the tumor is gone, the doctors can then begin radiation and surgery.
According to Truty, nearly half of his patients came to him after their other physicians told them they were ineligible for surgery. A study by the Mayo Clinic showed that of 194 cases treated with their method, 89% lived longer than the normal life expectancy of 12 to 18 months. Their treatment regimen has increased average survival to 5 years after original diagnosis.
Almost a third of the patients in the study couldn’t even be considered in the survival calculation, as they’re still alive and healthy. Bastian’s original diagnosis — during which he was told he’d have 15 months to live — was over four years ago.
Other researchers and physicians are enthusiastic about Mayo’s approach, as everyone wants to see a higher cure rate for pancreatic cancer. Allison Rosenzweig, senior manager of Scientific and Clinical Communications at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, calls the approach “a remarkable accomplishment.”
She does warn, however, that the treatment will not be successful for all stage 3 pancreatic cancer patients. Unfortunately, not everyone will respond to the initial chemotherapy enough to shrink the cancerous cells. Some people may also be too sick to undergo the treatments. It also will only work for patients with stage 3, disease, the stage during which most pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed.