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Hope On The Horizon For Pancreatic Cancer Care

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In Wisconsin, pancreatic cancer is the second leading cause of adult cancer death, says Dr. Douglas Evans. Shown here is an illustration of the pancreas.

After Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek announced he had stage four pancreatic cancer, many took the diagnosis as a death sentence. The American Cancer Society estimates that just 3% of patients with pancreatic cancer at that stage will survive beyond 5 years after diagnosis.

So, it was surprising when 78-year-old Trebek announced he was making a recovery and “near remission.” This is part of a pattern of increasingly effective treatments for the deadly cancer, according to Dr. Douglas Evans. He's chair of the surgery department at the Medical College of Wisconsin and an expert in pancreatic cancer. Although it's relatively rare, pancreatic cancer is incredibly deadly.

"Pancreas cancer is especially important in Wisconsin, because right now pancreatic cancer is the second leading cause of adult cancer death, behind only lung cancer."

"Pancreas cancer is especially important in Wisconsin, because right now pancreatic cancer is the second leading cause of adult cancer death, behind only lung cancer. In the United States, it’s currently the fourth leading cause of cancer death," says Evans. 

But there is hope on the horizon. At the Medical College of Wisconsin, researchers have found that by analyzing individual tumors and creating a genetic profile, they can individualize care for each patient. 

"Based on that genetic profile, we could infer whether chemotherapy drugs would be effective or ineffective against that patient's tumor. And so each patient received somewhat of a unique, personalized and slightly different treatment — with the idea that that treatment would be more effective. Sure enough, that actually came to be true," says Evans.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect. Before then, she was a director and producer for Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm Chicago Public Radio.