Pancreatic cancer is one of the trickiest forms of cancer because it is very difficult to find and treat. However, state-of-the-art proton therapy raises hope and might change the outcomes of this disease, despite the challenges and difficulties it involves for researchers and clinicians.
There are currently no specific tools to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages. Its symptoms often mimic those of other sicknesses. That’s why pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major forms of cancer. 94% percent of patients that are diagnosed die within 5 years. Life expectancy is reduced to 6 months it the cancer has metastasized. These rather bad statitstics haven’t changend in nearly 40 years, unlike many other types of cancer.
As specific symptoms usually arise in the late stages of the cancer, only 20% of patients are still eligible for surgery. Chemotherapy and radiation are thus the primary forms of treatment.
With radiation treatment, the amount of radiation that can be given with conventional doses is limited due to the proximity of the pancreas to critical organs such as the liver and kidneys, as well as the spinal cord, which. That is where proton therapy shows its benefits.
“It’s all about depositing the dose where you want it,” said James Metz, MD, vice chair clinical division, department of radiation oncology and professor of radiation oncology at Penn Medicine.
“Proton therapy allows us to pinpoint exactly where we want to put that radiation dose while missing the normal tissues.”
Patients treated with traditional radiation therapy tend to undergo more side effects. “They get nauseous, they get diarrhea, they feel lousy, their quality of life is not as good,” says Dr. Metz. “Many of them that get protons have a tendency to really go through treatment easier, and I think that’s really important from a quality of life perspective.”