Matt Wilson of Lewes was 29 years old when he went to the Emergency Room at Christiana Care in Newark suffering from severe lower back pain and vomiting - symptoms be believed to be from a kidney stone. The x-rays, however, revealed a strange shadow on his pancreas that his primary care physician decided to examine more closely. Three months later, he checked into Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia for surgery that removed his spleen, a cancerous tumor on the tail of his pancreas and 21 lymph nodes.
As pancreatic cancer patients go, Wilson was one of the lucky ones. Because the cancer was identified and dealt with at an early stage, the surgery left him symptom-free without radiation or chemotherapy. Others may not be so fortunate. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 55,000 people will likely be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and more than 44,000 will likely die from it. Pancreatic cancer is expected to become the second leading cause of cancer deaths by the year 2020.
The path to prevention is challenging, because the cause of most pancreatic cancer is unknown, even though physicians can counsel patients about certain risk factors such as diabetes or a family history of the disease. Individuals who have experienced chronic or hereditary pancreatitis may also be in more danger.
There are only a small number of treatment options for the disease. Surgery to remove tumors is an option for fewer than 20 percent of the patients who suffer from adenocarcinoma, which occurs when tumors form in the pancreas ducts. Before or after that surgery, some patients may undergo radiation, which can be combined with chemotherapy. Many patients are also participating in clinical trials with the hope of discovering other treatments or cures.
Today, Wilson is celebrating his seventh year of being cancer-free and is telling his survival story as an advocate for others. He joined other survivors in a June 19 meeting with Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. The meeting was arranged by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which brought 600 advocates - including 130 pancreatic cancer survivors - to the nation’s capital.
“Our big message this year is that we want about $39 billion for the National Institutes of Health, which will mean $6.4 billion for the National Cancer Institute,” said Wilson. “This is important because 80 percent of health research is funded by the federal government. We also want Sen. Coons to be part of the Congressional Caucus on the Deadliest Cancers.”
Wilson said Coons was very responsive in the meeting. And in a Senate floor speech shortly afterward, the senator spoke about his personal connection to the disease. “Last February, I lost my father to pancreatic cancer,” said Coons. “This was my first Father’s Day without him.”
Wilson feels especially fortunate for the role of early detection in saving his life. “Many people go in for one medical issue and walk out with a diagnosis of the cancer,” he said. “I’ve been given a second chance and am taking advantage of it by volunteering with the network and trying to live a healthier lifestyle by working out and eating better - even though the summer’s been hard with the barbecues and chicken wings.”
Wilson notes that identifying the cancer early on can support recovery. “You know your body and know when things are wrong; it’s your right to have conversations with your doctor,” he said.
Wilson urges people to visit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network website to learn more about the disease and the types of symptoms that warrant a visit with a physician. These include stomach or back pain, chronic nausea and vomiting, weight loss and poor appetite, jaundice, dark urine and sudden onset of type 2 diabetes in African-American and Hispanic people age 50 or older.
For more information, go to www.pancan.org.