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Pancreas Cancers

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Noelle LoConte, MD, Oncologist, UW Carbone Cancer Center
Dr. Noelle LoConte
In this month's edition of A Note From Your Doctor, Noelle LoConte, MD explains the different kinds of pancreas cancer and why they all have such bad prognoses.
 
The pancreas is an organ, in essence, made up of two types of cells, called exocrine and endocrine cells.
 
The exocrine cells secrete certain hormones into the stomach which are needed for digestion.
 
Endocrine cells secrete hormones into the blood which are largely responsible for maintaining blood sugar, among a few other tasks.
 
Ninety-five percent of pancreatic cancers are cancers of the exocrine system, and are more precisely known as pancreatic adenocarcinomas.

This cancer is the cancer that recently took the lives of Luciano Pavarotti, Patrick Swayze and Randy Pausch. It is the forth most common cancer killer in the United States, and very little progress has been made in treating this cancer over the last 50 years.
 
This cancer is frequently found when it has spread to organs outside the pancreas, and is treated with chemotherapy and occasionally radiation therapy. The prognosis is generally measured only in months.
 
In contrast, cancers of the endocrine system are sometimes called islet cell carcinomas, or neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas, and carry a much better prognosis and require a very different set of treatments. These make up only one percent of all pancreas cancers.
 
The founder of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs, has a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. In contrast to pancreatic adenocarcinoma, these patients frequently live many years, and there is not a large role for chemotherapy at this point in treating this cancer.

Pancreas tumors in general do not have many survivors and so they do not get as much publicity as other tumors. For this reason the funding for both endocrine and exocrine pancreas cancers has lagged far behind tumors with many more treatment options.

To increase funding, more family members, friends and care givers need to advocate for this funding. With funding comes progress (see the tremendous strides which have been made in treating pediatric and breast cancers, for example). 
 
About Dr. LoConte

Dr. LoConte is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She joined the faculty of the UW Carbone Cancer Center in the summer of 2006. She was the recipient of the American Society of Clinical Oncology Young Investigator Award for 2006. Her clinical interests are in gastrointestinal cancers, as well as cancer of any type in the older adult.

Dr. LoConte writes a column for Advances e-Newsletter called A Note From Your Doctor. In her column, she shares her thoughts on healthy living, cancer research and current treatments. She will even answer your questions.