, Gloucester, MA


November 2, 2012

Senior Lookout: Raising pancreatic cancer awareness

If you noticed women walking around in October with pink streaks in their hair, it probably had nothing to do with Halloween.

The streaks were part of a breast cancer awareness campaign that prompted many to pay to have their hair streaked, with the hairdressers donating the proceeds to cancer charities. A lot of pink ribbons and pink other things appear during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

But, as we bid farewell to October, we enter November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.

Sadly, pancreatic cancer research is much less well-funded, and knowledge about the disease not as well publicized as for breast cancer. In an effort to change that, proponents of awareness about this devastating disease suggest not only donning a purple ribbon, but actually educating yourself about the symptoms and risk factors of this difficult to treat illness, which is often discovered too late in its course.

So, who is most at risk for pancreatic cancer? Ethnically, African Americans and those of Jewish descent seem more pre-disposed (in Jews, a mutation of the BRCA2 gene could possibly have an impact, as it does in conferring an increased lifetime risk of breast or ovarian cancer).

Researchers have also identified a protein molecule called KRAS, described in a Wikipedia article as a “molecular on/off switch” which is mutated in 90 percent of patients with pancreatic cancers, but there is, as yet, no effective therapy. KRAS mutation has been associated with other forms of cancer as well.

Another significant risk factor is smoking. Up to 30 percent of all cases of pancreatic cancer may be related to smoking. Also, men are at more risk than women, and those with diabetes may be at higher risk as well, although the connection is not clear.

Pancreatic cancer has claimed some very famous victims, including actor Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, singer Luciano Pavarotti, and vaudeville and television star Jack Benny. Even with the resources available to them for excellent medical care, they could not prevail over this illness that is mostly discovered when already in an advanced stage.

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