U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is due back at work on February 23. She had surgery for pancreatic cancer earlier this month (February 5). Experts say she has a good chance of recovery. But most pancreatic cancer patients do not.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is lucky.
Her cancer was found at the earliest stage and has not spread beyond her pancreas.
Just five percent of pancreatic cancer patients live five years after their diagnosis.
"This is a deep-seated organ," Dr. Mohammed Kalan explained. "A tumor in the pancreas can grow considerably before a patient can have any symptoms.
Doctor Mohammed Kalan teaches surgery at the George Washington University School of Medicine.
The pancreas is partly hidden by the stomach in this diagram that Dr. Kalan is pointing to. He explains why it is difficult to detect a tumor in the pancreas.
"Unfortunately, there are no reliable, routine blood tests that can be done on a regular basis to pre-emptively catch pancreatic cancer or catch it at an early stage," he said.
Doctors discovered a small tumor in Justice Ginsburg's pancreas during a CT scan.
That growth turned out to be benign. But during surgery to remove it, they found a second, smaller tumor that was malignant.
The Supreme Court says her cancer was in the earliest stage of development. And her prognosis is good.
"Sadly, only about 20 percent of patients are even candidates for surgery by the time a diagnosis is made," Dr. Kalan said.
In Houston, Texas, Dr. Joan Bull uses heat therapy - an induced fever - along with chemotherapy for her patients with pancreatic cancer.
Just as a fever helps the body fight an infection, Dr. Bull says it can be used to fight cancer.
"We're revving up, and that's what we're testing in the lab: the person's own immune response to the tumor." Dr. Bull says heat therapy has helped extend the lives of some patients. "We have a 57 percent overall response rate. Now that is not talking cure. I wish I would."
Which, again, is why Justice Ginsburg is lucky. Dr. Kalan said. "The only thing that can cure an early pancreatic cancer is surgical resection." At least at this time.