Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Fundraisers Don't Always Target Deadliest Diseases

UW Health Family Medicine physician Dr. Jacqueline GerhartMadison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.



Dear Dr. Gerhart: My husband had pancreatic cancer, and he died six months after diagnosis. Why is it that I see so many fundraisers about breast cancer and leukemia when people with these diseases seem often to be cured and live long lives?


Dear Reader: I am very sorry for the loss of your husband. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most rapidly developing cancers — often with people surviving only three to six months after diagnosis.


As you probably know, Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple Inc., also had pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed in 2003 and lived with cancer until Oct. 5, 2011.


So was it his extensive fortune, medical treatments in Switzerland and unfaltering dedication to technology that helped him to survive longer than most? Probably not. It turns out he had a special type of pancreatic cancer affecting endocrine glands in the pancreas, which has a better prognosis. For most pancreatic cancers, 94 to 96 percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis.


While I cannot explain how people choose to donate their money in regards to scientific research, there often is a correlation between the number of people with a disease, the disease's burden on our medical system, and the number of dollars allotted for treatment, therapy and research.


First some numbers: The leading cause of death in America is heart disease, with about 616,000 deaths per year, divided about equally between the sexes. Cancer is in second place, with 572,000 deaths in 2011 — 292,000 men 270,000 women.


According to the American Cancer Society report from 2011, for men, the leading causes of cancer deaths are lung (28 percent), prostate (11 percent), colon and rectum (7 percent) and pancreas (6 percent). For women, it is lung (26 percent), breast (15 percent), colon and rectum (9 percent), and pancreas (6 percent).


However, there are different trends in the number of new cancers diagnosed. Of the 1.6 million Americans newly diagnosed with cancer in 2011, men's cancer cases were 29 percent prostate, 14 percent lung and 9 percent colorectal. Women's cases were 30 percent breast, 14 percent lung and 9 percent colorectal.


Over our lifetimes, one in three men will develop prostate cancer and one in eight women will develop breast cancer. Because we routinely screen with mammography, breast cancer is often diagnosed before it spreads, and many women are cured. And although the screening test for prostate cancer (PSA) has its faults, many men will have prostate cancer symptoms before it spreads, allowing it to be recognized, treated and cured.


Therefore, while breast and prostate cancers are the most common types of cancers, they are not the most fatal. Lung cancer causes more cancer deaths than both of those others combined.


There are trillions of dollars used for cancer treatment and research. Since 1998, the number of breast cancer cases has decreased by 1.6 percent each year, and the number of colon cancer cases has decreased by 2.2 percent each year, in part due to new technologies and research advancements. We also have learned much about the causes of cancers and have tried to limit cigarette use, protect ourselves from the sun and improve our diets. Studies are ongoing to learn about how stress, diet, exercise, depression, medications and the immune system impact cancer.


If you are interested in contributing to cancer research, I suggest you first try looking for local events such as walks, pledge drives and sales, where proceeds go to established cancer funds. For those who know families touched by cancer, remember that your emotional support — whether it be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or an invitation to clean or cook for them — can go a long way.



This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.

Date Published: 04/24/2012

News tag(s):  jacqueline l gerhart

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