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December 5, 2006 > Lethal Disease Touches Many Lives

Lethal Disease Touches Many Lives

What do screen legends Joan Crawford and Rex Harrison, musicians Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, composers Henry Mancini and Johannes Brahms, comedian Jack Benny and anthropologist Margaret Mead have in common? Each died of a relatively common and particularly deadly disease – cancer of the pancreas.

This year, more than 31,000 Americans will die of pancreatic cancer, making it the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the country. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) reports that one year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, only 23 percent of people will still be living. Only 4 percent will be alive after five years. This lethal disease has the highest fatality rate of any form of cancer.

PanCAN recently observed Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to help increase public understanding of the disease and encourage research to identify early detection methods and discover a cure.

“Despite the especially lethal nature of pancreatic cancer, the research spending per pancreatic cancer patient is only $1,145, the lowest of any leading cancer,” asserts PanCAN.
The pancreas is a gland located across the upper part of your belly. Its function is to secrete hormones and digestive juices to help digest your food. One of these hormones is insulin, which is essential for your body’s ability to use the glucose in the foods you eat as a source of energy.

When cancer strikes the pancreas, the symptoms may vary. Common complaints include abdominal pain, loss of appetite, significant weight loss and jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin. All of these symptoms could also be attributed to other causes.

“There are no early warning signs specific to pancreatic cancer,” says Annamalai Veerappan, M.D., a Fremont gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Washington Hospital. “In most cases, by the time we diagnose the disease, it has advanced too far and would require major surgery. This usually isn’t possible.”

In the fight against pancreatic cancer, “no effective early detection methods have been developed, there are minimal treatment options available and very little research is underway due to limited funding,” states PanCAN.

One thing people can do is be aware of the risk factors that may lead to pancreatic cancer and avoid them, if possible. Dr. Veerappan reports the primary known risk factors are having a family history of the disease, smoking and having diabetes. Eating a diet high in meat may also contribute to the disease. Some people suffer from pancreatitis, and this has been linked to cancer of the pancreas; however it has not been proven to be a cause.

If someone in your family has had pancreatic cancer, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of planning a surveillance strategy that could detect the disease at an earlier stage, if you were to be struck.

“Endoscopic ultrasound is being used increasingly to try to find the disease sooner,” says Dr. Veerappan. “There is also a test to detect a tumor marker in the blood called Ca 19.9, but the effectiveness of this is, as yet, unclear.”

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, visit the web site of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at

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