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    PANCREATIC CANCER
    Read the story of ASCP Patient Champion Marissa and learn about the role
    of laboratory testing in the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

WHAT IS PANCREATIC CANCER?

Pancreatic cancer is a malignant growth that starts in the pancreas when the cells grow and divide abnormally. The pancreas is a gland that produces hormones that help control blood sugar levels and makes enzymes that help with the digestion of food. It is located between the spine and the stomach. Pancreatic cancer can start developing in exocrine cells or neuroendocrine cells such as islet cells. Cancers that develop in the exocrine cells, such as pancreatic adenocarcinoma, are the most common type of pancreatic cancer. The symptoms of pancreatic cancer include fatigue, dark-colored urine, itchy skin, abdominal pain that travels to your back, jaundice (a condition where the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow) and loss of appetite. Some risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking, BRCA2 gene mutation, chronic inflammation of the pancreas and a family history of pancreatic cancer.

 

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*Image from Wikimedia commons

Normal pancreatic glands (left) at the interface with a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas (right). Note that the collection of tumor cells is monomorphic (all look the same) while the normal gland is heterogeneous (all look different).

MARISSA’S STORY

“The results you wait for with bated breath, those are provided by the laboratory.”

In October 2019, Marissa found herself curled in a fetal position in tears after dinner. With her husband and kids in tow, she went to the closest emergency room where she anticipated surgery to remove her gallbladder. Instead, Marissa was sent for a CT scan by the ultrasound technician, which was followed by a series of lab tests. At the age of 38, Marissa was diagnosed with a Grade 1 Pancreatic Neuroendocrine tumor.

With 18 years of experience as a registered nurse, Marissa took a clinical approach to tackling her cancer diagnosis, carefully reviewing her lab results and weighing the treatment options: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Together with her health care team, Marissa decided to have a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) to remove the golf ball sized tumor. Afterwards, Marissa experienced and overcame a number of complications including a pancreatic leak, GI bleed, and bowel anatomic leak. These complications were promptly diagnosed by the lab personnel and the tests helped guide her plan of care.

Without the lab, it would not have been possible to treat her cancer effectively. Pathologists and laboratory professionals did not only diagnose and grade her cancer, they also monitored the pancreatic fluid leak after surgery, and continue to measure her tumor markers to make sure the cancer does not return.

Now, Marissa is cancer free and works reduced hours at the hospital because she decided to be more present and spend time with family. “I reevaluated my life and made some changes aligned with my values and goals”, says Marissa.

“Without the lab, diagnosis and treatments would be impossible. The information the lab provides guides your plan of care.”

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