Mary Bird Perkins - OLOL Cancer Center launches new pancreatic cancer screening program for high-risk patients

Updated: Dec. 5, 2019 at 7:44 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Pancreatic cancer is often described as the most-feared form of the disease. It’s notorious for bad outcomes in a very short amount of time. A new program in Baton Rouge is trying to change that.

Albert Johnson went to the doctor’s office... in the hopes of staying away from the doctor.

“I don’t think about getting it. I try not to anyway. I don’t think about getting it, but I wouldn’t like to get pancreatic cancer,” he said.

Johnson’s brother and mother both died from the disease. That’s why he’s part of a new screening program at Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. It’s for people considered high risk.

“While there is still much research to be done on preventing pancreatic cancer development, the next best thing we can do is detect it at an earlier stage where there is a better chance for a cure. There are subgroups of patients who are known to have higher risk either because of genetic mutations or family history. Our goal is to identify people with the highest risk of developing pancreatic cancer and enroll them into our program, allowing us to personalize a prevention and screening plan based on their risk factors,” said Dr. John Lyons, surgical oncologist and chair of the cancer center’s Hepatobiliary Multidisciplinary Cancer Care Team.

In Louisiana, 900 new pancreatic cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in the coming year, and about 700 people will die from the disease, the cancer center says.

“In the past, they’ve been told they have a high risk of pancreas cancer, but nobody was really acting on this. It’s like, ‘Okay, you have a high risk of pancreas cancer, hopefully we’ll find it someday,’ whereas now, we’re being way more proactive and looking for these lesions,” said Dr. Lyons.

Because there are no symptoms, pancreatic cancer is usually caught when it’s too late for effective treatment. The screening program relies on genetic testing, annual MRIs, and a scope procedure to look directly at the pancreas.

The cancer center says pancreatic cancer can develop from two types of cells in the pancreas: exocrine cells that produce enzymes to help digestion and neuroendocrine cells that make and release hormones that control bodily functions. Exocrine is the more common type, and the more aggressive form of the cancer. Right now, surgery is the only option, but because most people are diagnosed so late, surgery is only a viable option for a small number of patients, the cancer center says.

Through the high-risk screening clinic though, doctors are hoping to catch the cancer early enough to perform successful surgery.

“We may be able to intervene and catch their cancer at pre-malignant stage prior to it becoming cancerous or at a stage where it’s very early and potentially curable,” Dr. Lyons said.

“He [brother] passed first before my mother did,” Johnson said.

Aside from generic mutations and family history, there are other factors than can make someone more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. They include some types of pancreatic cysts or certain types of inflammatory conditions of the organ.

With such a tragic family history, Johnson says the screening program helps him sleep a bit easier. His genetic tests came back clean.

“I think it’s been a good thing, ‘cause it relieved me from knowing that I could easily pass it to my children. Lot of people don’t wanna’ go and get those tests done, but I tell you, if they go, that’s the best thing they can do,” Johnson said.

He’ll stay in the program for the rest of his life, with annual visits to make sure he’s cancer free. Early detection tools consist of blood work, genetic testing, an MRI of the abdomen, and an endoscopic ultrasound. Patients not diagnosed with cancer will be monitored to make sure there are no changes.

There are strict guidelines to enter the screening program. Ask your doctor if you think you may qualify, or call the cancer center at 225-769-5656, or go online here.

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