Genetic testing helping doctors in discovery, treatment of pancreatic cancer

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- It has been nearly a year since Jeopardy host Alex Trebek died of pancreatic cancer. Doctors are at last moving the needle on survival on this cancer through genetic testing.

"I was having stomach pains for a couple days straight," said Joseph Becker of Kensington.

A friend also noticed Becker's eyes were yellow. A CT scan ordered by his doctor revealed two tumors.

"I was like kind of in shock because my father had passed away from pancreatic cancer, like 6 years earlier," he said.

When his father was diagnosed, Becker declined genetic testing, so he didn't know he was at risk.

Dr. Michael Hall of Fox Chase Cancer Center said it's now standard for all pancreatic cancer patients.

"With a genetic panel, or at least for two genes that are associated with pancreas cancer, and those primary ones are the BRCA one and BRCA two genes," he said.

BRCA gene mutations also play a role in breast and ovarian cancers. The ATM mutation Becker carries is tied to pancreatic and breast cancer. Other mutations tied to pancreatic cancer include the PALB-2, CDKN2-A genes, and Lynch syndrome.

But Dr. Hall said numerous genes probably contribute.

"Once you put those little slivers in the pie, you get to about 10-15% of people having a hereditary risk of some kind," he said.

Surgeon Sanjay Reddy said genetic testing has several benefits. It determines which drugs can better shrink tumors before surgery, especially those close to blood vessels, like Becker's.

"With the pre-operative therapy, we're able to render a response where the tumor did back away and pull off enough for us to go in there and get everything out completely," he said.

It also helps in personalized screening and prevention plans. Doctors already know cutting out smoking and alcohol are important.

Becker's son plans to get tested soon.

"Even though you carry this gene, it doesn't mean you have cancer, you know what I mean? It's just you got to keep an eye on it," said Becker.

Dr. Reddy said Alex Trebek really put the spotlight on pancreatic cancer, empowering patients to talk about it more, and energizing doctors to try new drugs and other treatments.
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