It is a type of cancer that doesn't have many symptoms and like most cancers early diagnosis is key to treating it. Now pancreatic cancer is being detected using a technique that's new to Roanoke.
Edith McLaughlin never felt sick. "I never felt any pain, nothing. I always felt good," McLaughlin said. Her lack of symptoms is typical in many cases of pancreatic cancer, but McLaughlin did have one sign in her eyes.
"Her family noticed her eyes were yellow. That's what brought her to the attention of physicians," said Dr. Paul Yeaton, a gastroenterologist with Carilion Clinic who treated McLaughlin. Yellowing of the eyes or skin is called jaundice and it's caused by blockage of bile.
Doctor Yeaton performed what's called an endoscopic ultrasound- where doctors insert a tube through the patient's mouth into the stomach to see what's going on. Putting the ultrasound device close to the organ allows better images.
"In this case you can place the ultrasound probe into the stomach which is right next to the pancreas so you can have very detailed views of the pancreas," said Dr. Yeaton. Doctors are also able to do a biopsy during the procedure. In McLaughlin's case they were able to tell on the spot that she had pancreatic cancer.
McLaughlin underwent an extensive surgical procedure called the Whipple in March and so far she's doing well. "The chance for cure with surgery has increased dramatically in the last decade," said Dr. Yeaton.
Many times, however, pancreatic cancer is not diagnosed early. " So pancreas cancer has a bad reputation because it is difficult to diagnose," said Dr. Yeaton. "Most of the time by the time patients come to the attention of a physician the tumor has spread to the point where it can't be removed surgically."
Since her surgery Edith McLaughlin said she's lost some of her taste for food- but other than that she feels good.
"I never hurt. I have no pain," McLaughlin said. "It just wasn't my time to go."
There are no known causes of pancreatic cancer although doctors say there has been a link established between smoking and pancreatic cancer.
Symptoms are not specific and can include abdominal discomfort or bloating, upper abdominal pain or a dull ache that radiates toward the back, although sometimes pain is not involved, jaundice or yellowing of skin and eyes, dark urine and pale stool and possibly weight loss.