Is there a Pancreatic Cancer Test out there? One that is effective? One that is currently available? One that could minimize the suffering of approximately 40,000 new pancreatic cancer patients each year?
And I find that almost absurdedly appalling. We can send men to the moon, but we still don’t have a simple blood test for pancreatic cancer.
One of the main reasons for the very poor prognosis for people with pancreatic cancer is that very few of these cancers are found early. The pancreas is located deep inside the body, so early tumors cannot be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. Patients usually have no symptoms until the cancer has spread to other organs.
Right now, there are no screening blood tests to find early cancers of the pancreas. There is not a Pancreatic Cancer Test. I find that frightening to say the least. Especially since I may now be at a higher risk of the disease.
Researchers have pinpointed several things that put us at greater risk for developing pancreatic cancer. They are:
• People with two or more relatives who have had pancreatic cancer
• Cigarette Smokers
• People of Ashkenazi Jewish descent
• People who have the BRCA2, p16, STK11 gene mutation or chronic pancreatitis
• People who are over the age of 50
Current diagnostic methods include CT scan, ultrasound, MRI, a needle biopsy or an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) test. Tests that are usually done months after initial symptoms have begun. These tests are expensive and therefore are not considered practical screening tests.
An ideal pancreatic cancer test for screening should be a safe, inexpensive, highly accurate test that reliably diagnoses pancreas cancer at a stage when it is not causing symptoms in the patient. This would provide that person the opportunity to take appropriate and effective action to treat and potentially cure the disease. Currently, we cannot offer a blood test for cancer of the pancreas that begins to meet these demands.
It is obvious that there is an enormous need to develop a sensitive and specific screening test for early detection of pancreatic cancer. I believe we could call it the Pancreatic Cancer Test!
There is a test you may hear often when doctors are discussing cancer cases. It is called the tumor marker test. Tumor markers are substances in the blood that are associated with cancer. Unfortunately, by the time blood levels are high enough to be consistently detected by available methods, the cancer is no longer in its early stages. This is why tumor markers are not used as a routine screening test for pancreatic cancer. Tumor marker tests are used most often for following the progression of the disease.
There are two common tumor marker tests that your doctor may use to monitor your progress:
1) CEA - carcinoembryonic antigen. This test can help detect advanced pancreatic cancer in some people. But it isn't sensitive enough to find the cancer early and again is not recommended as a screening test.
2) CA 19-9 is a substance that is released into the blood by the pancreatic cancer cells. It is the most common test used to monitor the progress of treatment for the pancreatic cancer patient.
Although there are no screening tests currently available to screen the general population for pancreatic cancer, researchers are working on developing new tests that would prove effective in early detection.
One of these cancer blood tests is the PAM4 antibody test. This test uses an antibody that works like a heat-seeking missile, homing in and attaching to cells that carry a protein called PAM4 that is present in most pancreatic cancers. It is currently undergoing more thorough testing, and, unfortunately, is years away from being used on the general public.
Another promising study is looking at the sugar chain molecules in our blood that are attached to the haptoglobin protein. They have observed that the sugar chain groups are highly regulated in normal cells but develop a different structure in cancer cells. Again promising, but light years away from being available.
So,while the researchers are working diligently on a variety of cancer blood tests, we try to wait patiently for a proven effective screening test, particularly for select groups of patients known to have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Such as individuals with a strong family history of pancreatic cancer. Like my brothers, myself and our children…
Someday we will have an effective Pancreatic Cancer Test. Praying that it’s in our lifetime…
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