If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, no doubt you have questions about the disease and available treatment options. Dr. Jacob Dowden, MD, Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary surgeon with University Surgical Associates shares information about the disease, warning signs you shouldn’t ignore, and the hope that’s available with effective surgical care.
Understanding Your Risk
The pancreas sits behind the stomach and in front of the spine, and its primary purpose is to regulate the body’s blood sugar by producing hormones and digestive juices. A person’s average lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 65. And although you can’t prevent pancreatic cancer, there are steps you can take to lower your risk.
“The most notable and avoidable risk factor for developing pancreatic cancer is smoking. Staying at a healthy weight and limiting alcohol consumption are also two ways to reduce your risk,” says Dr. Dowden. “Although pancreatic cancer and alcohol consumption are not directly related, cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis are caused by excessive alcohol use and are known to increase a person’s risk for pancreatic cancer.”
Limiting exposure to know carcinogens (or cancer-causing agents) is also recommend. Click here for more information about carcinogens and how to protect yourself.
Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs
It’s also important to pay close attention to your body’s signals if you think something isn’t right and talk to your doctor right away. The earlier pancreatic cancer is found, the more options there are for effective treatment. Pancreatic cancer is most often found with computed tomography (CT) scans, endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Unfortunately, they’re not 100 percent effective in finding small lesions, pre-cancer or early stage cancers.
“Because it’s near the digestive system, pancreatic cancer often causes abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, bloating, and changes in the color of a person’s stools. Other whole-body symptoms include loss of appetite, elevated blood sugar, weight loss and general fatigue,” says Dr. Dowden. “Frequently, gastroenterologists are the ones who discover pancreatic cancer because they are going through a range of investigations for people who are experiencing unexplained symptoms.”
Advanced Training Makes All the Difference
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis almost always includes surgery as part of the treatment plan. Choosing a surgeon with specialty training in HPB surgery is one way you can have confidence in the quality and level of care you’ll receive. HPB stands for Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary surgery, or in other words, surgery of the liver, pancreas and biliary system. Dr. Jacob Dowden is the only surgeon in the Chattanooga region who has achieved the highest level of training to treat pancreatic cancer.
“Studies have shown that if you seek treatment from a surgeon who has a high degree of specialization and at a hospital that performs a relatively large number of procedures every year, your outcomes are better in terms of cancer complications overall,” says Dr. Dowden. “I’m the only surgeon in area who has this particular training, and I take the challenge of these difficult surgeries very seriously. It’s a privilege to use my skills and training to have a positive impact on people’s lives.”
One advanced surgical option for pancreatic cancer is called a Whipple, or a pancreatic resection. It’s a complex procedure that often extends life and could be a potential cure. People who have a successful Whipple may see an increased five-years survival rate of up to 25 percent.
“The Whipple is typically used for people who have tumors located in the top of the pancreas. It involves removing the widest part of the pancreas, parts of the small intestine and the common bile duct, gallbladder and sometimes part of the stomach,” says Dr. Dowden. “It’s a complicated, two-step process that reroutes the digestive system around the affected area and is our greatest chance of successful treatment.”
Is Pancreatic Cancer an Automatic Death Sentence?
Dr. Dowden acknowledges that pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat, but people should be encouraged that there are many options to approach it in a safe but aggressive way.
“There are no HPB or pancreatic cancer procedures that require a drive to Nashville or Atlanta, because we offer the most advanced capabilities available anywhere,” says Dr. Dowden. “It’s important to me for people to know that the most advanced cancer-fighting surgeries and treatments are available right here in Chattanooga. Our expertise gives people an opportunity to live longer and healthier lives.”
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, you have choices when it comes to your surgeon and your treatment options. For more information or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Dowden, please call (423) 267-0466.