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For Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, review your family history

Journal Staff

On Nov. 4, PanCAN’s Purple Stride Boston event raised over $490,000 to fight pancreatic cancer.

NOVEMBER 22, 2018, BEVERLY – Early in 2017, Paul Sokolove of Beverly suffered from an upset stomach and severe skin discomfort. He visited his dermatologist, who suggested bloodwork. Once the tests were finished, his doctor told him to go to the ER immediately. Sokolove was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer.

After months of radiation and chemotherapy at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and most recently, an 11-hour surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital during which a tumor was removed, his condition has improved, according to Sokolove’s wife, Christine Hayes Sokolove.

“When [his doctor] was putting everything back together, he said he didn’t see any signs of anything that was awry … and luckily they were able to leave his stomach intact,” said Hayes Sokolove. “He went from 5 percent chance to 40 percent chance of living five years.”

According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is about 9 percent. Allison Rosenzweig, the senior manager of scientific and clinical communications at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), said pancreatic cancer is currently the third-leading cause of cancer deaths behind lung/bronchial and colorectal, and is on track to become the second-most deadly.
According to Rosenzweig, there is no uniform set of symptoms that indicate pancreatic cancer, which makes catching it early more difficult.

“Because the disease symptoms are often vague, patients aren’t diagnosed in the earlier stages of the disease – it may be something that’s just a little stomach ache, back pain that can be easily attributed to other factors,” she said.

During November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Hayes Sokolove has a message for Ashkenazi Jews, who have higher rates than the general population of the genetic mutation that can lead to pancreatic cancer: know your family history, and if it includes pancreatic, breast, prostate, or ovarian cancer, speak to your doctor to learn more.

“Paul is an Ashkenazi Jew, and my understanding is there’s a high incidence of it, and if someone in your family has cancer … be aware of signs and symptoms,” she said.

If there is family history of cancer, then genetic testing is usually covered by insurance. Even if insurance doesn’t cover the blood test, they are relatively inexpensive at $250.

Taryn Rourke is a certified genetic counselor at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington. “We review if they did test positive for a mutation, what these increased risks are for breast and ovarian and pancreatic, and what the medical management recommendations are if you have mutations,” said Rourke. “We also address insurance concerns … some people want to get their life insurance in place before having genetic testing, so we address all those issues, too, just to make sure it’s the right timing for people to test.”

According to Rosenzweig, there is no uniform set of symptoms that indicate pancreatic cancer, which makes catching it easy more difficult. “Because the disease symptoms are often vague, patients aren’t diagnosed in the earlier stages of the disease – it may be something that’s just a little stomachache, back pain that can be easily attributed to other factors,” said Rosenzweig. “We need better education of healthcare professionals when patients do show up with those sorts of symptoms, and they can’t figure out where it’s coming from to consider pancreatic cancer as an option.”

Hayes Sokolove agrees that doctors should not rule out pancreatic cancer for a variety of different symptoms. “My personal feeling is that doctors only see their specialty,” she said, recalling when her husband, a beer aficionado, could suddenly not drink beer anymore because it resulted in severe discomfort. “Know the signs and symptoms – don’t ignore your body. Get the CAT scan, and if your doctor doesn’t do it, go to someone else. Because I think this could’ve been nipped in the bud a long time ago. When you start putting these things together and you see multiple things going on, being aware, and knowing these things, and pushing your doctor, I think would help people get diagnosed a lot earlier, and be able to be treated. Because if you do get it early, you can get it out of there.”

To learn more about pancreatic cancer, and how to participate in Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, visit pancan.org

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