Time for action on pancreatic cancer

Monday, 17 February, 2020

Time for action on pancreatic cancer

A report published by Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation shows that, without action, pancreatic cancer is likely to become Australia’s second biggest cancer killer.

Despite being the fifth most common cancer in Australia, pancreatic cancer is only the 11th most government-funded cancer via the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Shockingly, the 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer sits at just 9.8% compared with 95% for prostate cancer and 91% for breast cancer — the lowest survival rates of all main cancer types. On average, 3300 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and 80% of patients diagnosed will die within 12 months.

It is thought that pancreatic cancer has not received the attention of other diseases due to low survival rates and few long-term survivors.

In response to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation (Avner Foundation) is calling for an urgent national response to the lack of progress in pancreatic cancer outcomes being faced in Australia. The organisation wants to put pancreatic cancer high on the national health agenda, give a voice to the people affected by pancreatic cancer and establish a strategic roadmap to improve pancreatic cancer survival rates.

Trailing behind

Pancreatic cancer trails behind other cancers when it comes to funding for research, receiving less than 8% of available NHMRC funding.

In its report — ‘Pancreatic Cancer: The Cancer of Our Generation Report’ — Avner Foundation outlined the national response needed, proposing a $52 million plan for significant investment in research and care to improve survival and quality of life for patients with pancreatic cancer.

“To make it painfully clear, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is, in most cases, basically a death sentence,” explained Professor Ross McKinnon, cancer expert and Chairman of the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation Scientific Advisory Panel.

“If you’re diagnosed with pancreatic cancer today, there’s only a 9.8% chance that you’ll still be alive in five years. To put that in perspective, if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, the five-year survival rate is 91%, and for prostate cancer, 95%. It’s simply unacceptable that pancreatic cancer — which kills almost as many people as breast cancer and prostate cancer each year — receives such a small fraction of the total cancer funding.”

The former Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government, Professor Chris Baggoley, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2018 and considers himself one of the lucky ones due to ‘accidental’ early detection.

“My tumour was detected during a check-up for something completely unrelated,” explained Prof Baggoley. “And because it was detected early, I was lucky enough to actually have a treatment option, which was radical GI surgery alongside post-op chemo. But for 90% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, there is no treatment option at all. In effect, they move straight to a palliative phase. There is no Plan A, let alone a Plan B.”

Avner Foundation’s National Response Outline

Fast-tracked research in four key areas
  • Identification of biomarkers to assist with early detection.
  • Identify why pancreatic cancer is resistant to existing cancer therapies.
  • Gain a greater understanding of the pancreatic cancer microenvironment.
  • Identify new therapies for pancreatic cancer, including the repurposing of existing treatments.
Develop a patient and carer support hub
  • Create a single pathway to ensure Australians affected by pancreatic cancer can gain instant support, guidance and care.
  • Create a unified body that can advocate for change and raise awareness of the unique challenges that pancreatic cancer presents.
  • Create networks of excellence for patient treatment.
  • Allow clinicians and researchers from research and medical institutions across Australia to collaborate and share knowledge.
  • Provide an avenue for collaboration with international researchers to accelerate new treatments.

Early detection is critical

Finding ways to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages is of critical importance. Currently, by the time the majority of people have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it will have already spread throughout the body. Treatment is largely ineffective for many patients so significant investment in research is needed.

“Pancreatic cancer survival rates are unacceptably low and it is fast becoming the cancer of our generation,” Avner Foundation CEO Michelle Stewart said.

“It is a devastating disease — difficult to diagnose, difficult to treat and with very few early warning signs — and yet funding for research remains desperately low. However, research takes time, time that people living with pancreatic cancer do not have.

The Avner Foundation has been working to drive change in pancreatic cancer outcomes and to date has invested more than $7.6 million across 28 research projects.

“Australia has made some incredible progress on many cancers, but, due to its low visibility and shockingly brief timeframe from diagnosis to end-stage, pancreatic cancer has been put in the ‘too hard basket’,” Prof McKinnon said.

“We know from work with other cancers that medical research is the single most important factor impacting patient survival. We know what we need to do, but we need help to do it. We are calling for urgent government support to progress a national response to help us fight this deadly disease.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/sewcream

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