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Head shot of Dr. Sandler, director of the High-Risk Pancreatic Cancer Clinic
Robert Sandler, MD, MPH; Director, High-Risk Clinic

Currently the most effective way to treat pancreatic cancer is to surgically remove tumors before they’re able to metastasize. However, given that symptoms do not develop until the disease has reached an advanced stage, finding potentially cancerous lesions early is crucial to successful treatment.

This is why we recommend annual screening for patients who are at elevated risk due to family history or genetic mutations, so we can discover pancreatic cancer when it can still be addressed with surgery. Screening at the High-Risk Pancreatic Cancer Clinic involves conducting MRI scans and endoscopic ultrasound to spot these cancers.

In addition to cancers, screening might also reveal precancerous lesions, or cysts. Surgically removing these lesions can prevent them from developing into cancer, which is why spotting them early can be so important.

Fortunately, the vast majority of high-risk patients we screen do not get cancer (roughly two of every 100 screened over a 10-year period), but annual screening has the potential to catch that small yet significant portion. And according to our director, Robert Sandler, MD, “Screening may also uncover abnormalities that might never become cancer but that still lead to biopsies or surgery. More than half of patients who undergo surgical resection of tumors do not currently have cancer.”

Is screening right for you?

If you would like to learn whether you should consider being screened in the High-Risk Pancreatic Cancer Clinic, please view our program pamphlet.

Consulting with our experts

When patients come to the High-Risk Clinic for screening, we explain the individual and family factors that might increase the risk for cancer, discuss lifestyle factors that can be modified (e.g., smoking, alcohol intake, and obesity), and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of screening.

We might also recommend that our genetic specialists complete a four-generation family history to determine whether members of a patient’s family have had various types of cancer, pancreatic in particular. The specialists decide which genes to test for and the most appropriate lab for testing, and then share available test results along with recommendations for cancer surveillance.

If tests reveal any genetic mutations that place a patient at greater risk for pancreatic or other cancers, our specialists will work with physicians to identify other family members who should be genetically tested and help to coordinate the appropriate testing.

What happens if pancreatic cancer is discovered?

When patients are found to have potentially cancerous lesions during screening, our physicians hold a multidisciplinary conference to consider treatment options and viable approaches to disease management. This team of collaborating experts includes radiation, medical and surgical oncologists.

At the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence, we tailor treatment to patients’ specific and often time-sensitive needs. We know that every situation is unique, so we provide insight and peace of mind in a compassionate setting where patients and their families can feel empowered to make the best decisions.

Methods for addressing pancreatic cancer are constantly evolving, and guidelines for treatment change quickly. We learn more every day about the association between various genetic mutations and risk for certain cancers, and we’re always assessing how, who, and when we test. But if you or a loved one might be at greater risk of pancreatic cancer, we encourage you to get screened.

Learn more about the High-Risk Pancreatic Cancer Clinic, or view our program pamphlet to learn whether you should be screened. If you’d like to request an appointment, please visit our booking page or call (984) 215-4672.

—Tyler Rice, UNC Lineberger Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence