‘The 10 Percent Club’: Researchers Try To Determine Why Some Pancreatic Cancer Patients Outlive The Odds

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Six years ago, Kathy Miller had severe pain in her back. She thought it was her gallbladder. She was stunned when the doctors told her it was pancreatic cancer.

“It just kind of bowled me over. I wasn’t prepared for that one. When somebody tells you you have stage four cancer, your mind goes blank. And then the panic sets in. How do I handle this? What do I do?”

For six years, she’s taken chemotherapy treatments.

“I’ve been so fortunate and so blessed. I haven’t been sick from any of ’em.”

She passes the time crocheting blankets for her friends and the staff at the cancer center.

“I keep busy doing that, and then a lot of it is a way of giving back sometimes. I’m not good at math, and you’d be amazed at how much math goes into crocheting.”

Perhaps fitting, then, her experience doesn’t add up. Kathy has outlived the odds.

“The life expectancy with treatment is about eight to eleven months, depending on what type of treatment the patient can receive,” says AHN cancer specialist, Dr. Dulabh Monga.

Researchers are now looking at why some pancreatic cancer patients, like Kathy, survive for years when most do not.

“It’s about 10 percent five years survival,” Dr. Monga adds.

Usually, at the time of diagnosis, cancer cells have traveled through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.

Survivors may just be lucky.

“So the patients that make it to five years and beyond are probably those who had it discovered right on time, and the disease had not already metastasized,” Dr. Monga lists as a possibility.

“Some patients may have some type of immune mechanism that just targets any type of cancer cell,” she adds.

To figure out if these factors, or others, play a part in a better prognosis, doctors are examining the tumor tissue of people with pancreatic cancer who have lived longer than five years. Any similarities could point to why some people do better.

Kathy gets CT scans every three months to monitor any progression. She says the tumor has grown, but not much. “Very minutely,” she describes.

“We are certainly surprised that she has done so well. It’s a pleasant surprise,” Dr. Neeta Pathe, an AHN cancer specialist, and Kathy’s doctor says, “She’s a very positive person. She has a great outlook towards life.”

“I just look on the bright side, and just keep going as long as I can,” says Kathy.

She would like to stay independent, and she takes one day at a time.