Learning the Signs of Pancreatic Cancer

By Lauren Wanko

Pastor Thomas O’Brien looks through dozens of get well cards from church parishioners. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October.

“I was totally shocked that I had any kind of cancer because I live a good, healthy life. I’m only three quarter time at the church, but they all complain because I work time and a half! I’m very active, I’m constantly on the go,” he said.

The Freehold resident scheduled blood work before and after a summer mission trip to Africa, just to make sure he hadn’t picked up any bugs during his journey. He says results indicated his liver function was abnormal. After a series of tests and procedures, he was diagnosed with stage 1 pancreatic cancer. Meridian Cancer Care’s Dr. Ronald Matteotti says the pancreas is often called the brain of the abdomen. It serves two major functions.

“The exocrine function, secretes enzymes to help your digestion, and the endocrine function secretes hormones to help you like regulate blood sugar,” he said.

Exocrine tumors are the most common type of pancreatic cancer, insists the doctor, who says most cases are diagnosed at a late stage. The state Department of Health indicates 1,341 New Jersey residents were diagnosed with invasive pancreatic cancer in 2012. One thousand one hundred seventy-five people died from the same disease that year. The American Cancer Society‘s most recent estimates indicate nationwide about 48,960 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 40,560 people will die from the disease.

“Unfortunately there’s no good screening tool right now we have available like we have for breast cancer or colon cancers,” Dr. Matteotti said.

If Dr. Matteotti suspects a patient may have cancer, he starts with lab testing to check the liver and pancreatic function, followed by an ultrasound.

The doctor says there are typically no symptoms indicating pancreatic cancer early on, however some red flags include vague abdominal pain, unintended weight loss and the three color changes — changes in urine, stool and skin color.

“The major risk factor in this day and age is cigarette smoking, high BMI and low activity level,” he said.

Men are about 30 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer and African-Americans are at a greater risk as well, says Dr. Matteotti.

As for treatment options, he said, “Treatments for cancer, and it applies for pancreatic cancer as well, treatments for cancer are three fold — surgery, basically if you can cut it out, it’s best option you have for five-year survival.”

Patients are often given radiation or chemotherapy too. O’Brien underwent surgery.

“They removed my gallbladder, the bile duct, pancreas, some small intestines, stomach, a piece of stomach and some lymph nodes to make sure the cancer had not spread,” he said.

How does O’Brien feel after all of that? “Empty,” he said.

Empty, but relieved. He’s now cancer-free. Pastor O’Brien’s determined to be back in the church by March.