By the time most patients are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it has already spread. Most patients don't survive.
Now a breakthrough could help doctors detect this deadly disease earlier-- and save lives.
Working in his sweet potato field, 68 year old Henry Hall has the energy of a man half his age. Every harvest marks another year that he's beaten the odds.
"Been seven years, eight months, 15 days…" Henry Hall, pancreatic cancer patient, told Ivanhoe.
That's how long it's been since Hall had surgery for pancreatic cancer. He knows just how lucky he is.
"Probably one out of a million. I assumed that it just you know… wasn't my time," Hall said.
For all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the one year survival rate is just 20 percent; five year survival, only four percent.
"And so there's something about this disease that is inherently more aggressive than many of the other cancers," Hong Jin Kim, M.D., associate professor, section chief of pancreatic and hepatobiliary surgery at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, added.
UNC researchers are investigating a specific form of a protein called Palladin that shows up in pancreatic cancer tumors before the cancer starts to spread.
"And so that's very exciting because what it tells us is that this increased Palladin expression may actually be a marker for a very early stage in tumor development," Carol Otey, Ph.D., associate professor cell and molecular physiology at UNC School of Medicine, said.
That protein, identified in a needle biopsy of the pancreas, could find cancers sooner. Early detection that could dramatically improve chances of survival.
"If we could do better at diagnosing it we really could extend lives," Dr. Otey concluded.
As for Hall, he plans to keep on doing what's worked for him.
"i'm going to work on it till the Lord takes me home," Hall concluded.
Doctors say Hall was able to survive his pancreatic cancer because even though his tumor was large, they were able to remove it before the cancer spread outside of the pancreas.
Clinical trials testing a protocol for detecting the Palladin protein are already moving forward at UNC, with the hope that they can lead to a new way of identifying pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, particularly for patients at high risk.
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