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It seems like pancreatic cancer is making headlines more and more. Notable names like Patrick Swayze, Aretha Franklin, and Steve Jobs have died from the disease, and now Alex Trebek has announced his diagnosis

The American Cancer Society Cancer Facts & Figures Report estimates a two percent increase in the number of people who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019 from last year. And a research study from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN) predicts pancreatic cancer will surpass breast and colon cancer to become the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States by 2020. While the number of cases is rising, the five-year survival rate has remained unchanged at around nine percent. 

Dr. Dae Won Kim, medical oncologist

Dr. Dae Won Kim, a medical oncologist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, says he has noticed an increase in pancreatic cancer cases. “We don’t know exactly why this is, but it could be environmental, related to smoking or obesity or related to a family history of the disease,” he said.

Surgery is a patient’s best option for survival, but only about 20 percent of patients are eligible for surgery. Kim says among those who have surgery, 80 percent will have recurrent or metastatic disease within five years.

So far, immunotherapy hasn’t been successful in pancreatic cancer, but there are many ongoing clinical trials. “We are trying to combine different treatments to enhance immunotherapy activity in pancreatic cancer,” said Kim. “For example, using radiation and chemotherapy with immunotherapy.” 

Since most pancreatic cancer patients don’t have symptoms until the disease is advanced, the disease is hard to detect at an early stage. Moffitt researchers are working on developing a combination of minimally invasive approaches that can accurately detect pancreatic cancer as early as possible. They are also studying ways the disease develops, with the hopes to improve patient outcomes.