GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The announcement from Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek last week that he’s battling pancreatic cancer hit close to home to those who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Barbara Dillon still remembers not only the devastating news that her husband Jack Witham had pancreatic cancer, but also the reaction from others.
“Whenever you say the words, ‘My husband has pancreatic cancer,’ everybody just goes, ‘Oh,'” Dillon said, demonstrating the sad exhale that went with the response. “Because it traditionally is a death sentence.”
Witham learned he had pancreatic cancer in 2013. He tried chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments, but it was too late.
“Once the symptoms present themselves, it’s typically too late to do anything,” Dillon said.
That’s because the cancer spreads to other parts of the body before there are any symptoms.
Witham died in 2015.
Dillon joined a support group at Gilda’s Club after her husband’s death and remains a volunteer there, helping others deal with their grief.
“I want to give back and help people know more about Gilda, and what Gilda was all about,” Dillon said.
She hopes research can help other families avoid the grief she experienced.
Some of that research is being done here in Grand Rapids.
“The late detection causes a big problem. Plus it’s just a difficult disease when it is detected,” said Dr. Brian Haab of the Van Andel Research Institute.
That sums up the frustration that comes with dealing with pancreatic cancer, a disease that more than 56,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with every year.
The pancreas is an organ located just under the stomach. It has two functions. The first is producing enzymes that help digest food.
“The other main function of the pancreas is to regulate blood glucose levels, and that’s what’s most known about it amongst people because when there’s a problem with that, it causes diabetes,” Haab said.
But it’s difficult to diagnose when a pancreas becomes cancerous.
“There’s no great blood tests that are established. And because it’s an internal organ, it’s not palpable when it’s causing a mass,” Haab said.
Haab leads the team that has developed a new blood test that could help improve the odds for future pancreatic cancer patients. They discovered a molecule in blood that’s elevated in most of the pancreatic cancers.
“Between these two together, we can detect about 70 percent of the pancreatic cancers with a very low false positive rate,” Haab said.
That early detection could give doctors and patients more options.
“It makes them candidates for surgery. Patients that do have surgical removal of the tumor, on average, have a much better survival than those that don’t,” Haab said.
More clinical studies are underway to confirm the blood tests works, followed up with limited use with patients to make sure it’s producing consistent results — results that offer new hope for the future.
“I don’t want other people to go through what we had to go through,” Dillon said. “It’s a terrible death.”
If you’d like to learn more about the disease and the advances made in detection, Van Andel Institute is holding a public lecture on the subject from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday.
LaughFest, which raises funds for Gilda’s Club, runs through Sunday in Grand Rapids.
**Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Jack Witham as Withem. We regret the error, which as been fixed.