This year, more than 45,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States, and it is estimated that over 38,000 will die from the disease. Add to those numbers the statistic that the disease has only a six percent survival rate after five years and one gets a glimpse of the threat pancreatic cancer poses.
This month, the Park City Council, the Summit County Council and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert all passed proclamations declaring November National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
Rona Greenwald, a Utah community representative with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, was the driving force behind this. She said now more than ever it is important to spread awareness about the disease.
"As other cancers are declining and mortality rates are declining with other cancers, it's going in the opposite direction with pancreatic cancer," Greenwald said.
Greenwald lost her cousin to the disease two years ago. She said she was "like a sister" to her, and had lost her fight with pancreatic cancer after only nine months.
"One of the problems is that there are few early warning signs, that can be vague and attributed to other ailments by the time it's diagnosed, the majority of people are in the late stages," Greenwald said.
Janis Hardy, a Pleasant Grove resident who has been battling the disease for two years, said the fight is "pretty much constant" since there are few effective treatment options. Hardy has stage four pancreatic cancer and has been participating in clinical trials through the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
"I have to scan every three months to see if the disease is progressing and switch to another medication," Hardy said. "I had a scan last month and found out I had a new tumor. They decided my chemotherapy was ineffective so now I'm going on a clinical trial."
Greenwald said the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network wants to double the survival rate of the disease by 2020. Hardy said increased participation in clinical trials is crucial, as they speed up research on the disease.
Much of what the organization funds are research grants. Dr. Lisa Cannon-Albright, a University of Utah genetic epidemiologist, is working on a research project to discover the genes associated with hereditary pancreatic cancer, which Greenwald said represents 10 percent of all total cases.
"People should pay attention to their family history -- the one clue you might get is if you have an affected relative, then you're at an increased risk [for pancreatic cancer]," Cannon-Albright said.
Cannon-Albright said she became interested in pancreatic cancer because it is a rare disease. She has more than a 30-year history of studying high-risk pedigrees to discover genes linked to cancer and other diseases.
Hardy spoke at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's PurpleLight National Vigil for Hope on Sunday in Salt Lake. She said she was more at risk for pancreatic cancer because of a BRCA2 genetic mutation she has. To those suffering from the disease, Hardy offered determined advice.
"Be tough and be assertive in the treatment. Be brave and try to be positive," Hardy said.
Greenwald pointed to pancreatic cancer's statistic that 73 percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis, where several other cancers have seen successes in early diagnostic tool discoveries over the years, like the colonoscopy and mammogram, as well as increased effective treatments, which can be attributed to higher survival rates
"Increased awareness for disease is wonderful, and can make a real difference that's the way we want [for pancreatic cancer]," Greenwald said.
Cannon-Albright urged those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to "have hope and positive thinking" and compelled those who have lost loved ones to the disease to help out the research cause.
"If you're the person left behind after pancreatic cancer strikes someone, if you can, invest in research because, really, I do think enough brains haven't been focused on the problem to solve it," Cannon-Albright said.
For more information on the work done by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, visit pancan.org.