By the time most patients are diagnosed, it has already spread.
New research, however, 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," Hall said about how long it's been since his 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. For five year survival, it's only four percent.
"And so there's something about this disease that is inherently more aggressive than many of the other cancers," said Dr. Hong Jin Kim, associate professor and section chief of Pancreatic and Hepatobiliary Surgery at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, University of North Carolina.
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," said Carol Otey, Ph.D., an associate professor of Cell and Molecular Physiology at UNCs School of Medicine.
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," Otey said.
As for Hall, he plans to keep on doing what's worked for him.
"I'm gonna work on it till the lord takes me home," Hall said.
Doctors say Henry 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.
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