Friday, November 30, 2012

Against the odds

Warshaw Institute offers promise for pancreatic cancer


A WORTHWHILE FIGHT: Top row, from left, Thayer; Carlos Fernandez-Del Castillo, MD, director of the Liver, Biliary and Pancreas Center; and Warshaw. Front row, Keith D. Lillemoe, MD, MGH surgeon-in-chief, and DiBona

Nancy DiBona, RN, of the Center for Perioperative Care, helps numerous patients prepare for surgery each week. “I explain the perioperative process, take their vitals and help comfort them and their family members,” she says.

When DiBona encounters a patient with pancreatic cancer, she can’t help but feel an extra pang of empathy. DiBona has lost four family members to the devastating disease, which has a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent. The survival rate does increase to 20 percent if the tumor is caught in time to be surgically removed.

DiBona, however, is determined to turn tragedy into triumph. Because the risk for developing pancreatic cancer triples when an immediate family member has it, she has annual checkups with Sarah Thayer, MD, PhD, a surgeon-scientist and faculty member of the Andrew L. Warshaw Institute for Pancreatic Cancer Research. She also volunteers to help the institute raise awareness whenever possible. In recognition of November as National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, DiBona helped staff a Nov. 13 information table in the Main Lobby, speaking with passersby about everything from risk factors to promising studies underway at the Warshaw Institute.

Established in 2008, the Warshaw Institute – named after Andrew L. Warshaw, MD, MGH surgeon-in-chief emeritus and founder of the Pancreatic Biology Lab – is a collaboration of scientists and clinicians whose mission is to extend and improve the lives of patients with pancreatic cancer through the development of innovative diagnostic and treatment options.

“In order to improve the lives of our patients and families going forward, we need better research,” says Thayer, who is director of the Pancreatic Biology Lab. “And this is where the Warshaw Institute comes in. Because we are a strong clinical force, we are becoming a strong research force.”

Areas of focus for the institute include cancer genetics, new imaging technologies and molecular profiling. But, Thayer says, more research funding is needed. While pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death, in terms of dollars spent per death, it ranks only 14th. Awareness is essential for increased funding. DiBona recalls one visitor at the information table asking another why there isn’t more awareness already. “Because there are no survivors,” that visitor responded.

But there is hope.

“Newer chemotherapy and proton beam treatment to supplement surgery holds promise,” says Warshaw. “Also, there are forms of pancreatic cancer that have a much better prognosis and a three times greater survival rate after surgery.”

“We do have survivors, and that’s the key thing,” adds Thayer. “People need to know that. We have some people who are living 10, 15 years past diagnosis. We can’t predict who will survive, but we do the best we can for every patient we have. And every day we get better.”

For more information about the Warshaw Institute, visit

Read more articles from the 11/30/12 Hotline issue.

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