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.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the fortunate victims whose disease was discovered early enough to be successfully treated. She is indeed among the lucky few, since this disease is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, with only 6 percent of patients surviving five years from diagnosis.
Adding to the difficulty in diagnosing pancreatic cancer is that the symptoms are often non-specific or seemingly unrelated. Jaundice is one obvious one, but it can be a sign of other conditions as well, and may not show up until the disease is quite advanced and the bile duct has become blocked. Abdominal pain, nausea, changes in stool color or texture, and itchiness, can all be associated with this illness.
Screening is not routinely done, as this is a rare disease, but is available and may be useful for those with a family history.
To learn more about pancreatic cancer, visit: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/pancreatic.
And maybe change the pink streak in your hair to purple during November.
Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.