The Low Survival Rate of Pancreatic Cancer

By Kim Smiley

Sally Ride, the first US woman in space and a national hero, died after a 17-month battle against pancreatic cancer on July 21, 2012.  Pancreatic cancer is a particularly deadly cancer with only a 6% five-year survival rate.  This disease also affects many people.  In 2010 alone, an estimated 43,000 people in the US were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

The reasons that pancreatic cancer is so deadly can be explored by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  The first step in building a Cause Map is outlining the problem which includes defining how the problem impacts the organizational goals.  In this example, the primary goal considered is the impact to the safely goal since pancreatic cancer has such a low survival rate.

In order to build the Cause Map, “why” questions are asked and the answers are added to the Cause Map.  Why does pancreatic cancer have such a low survival rate?  The survival rate is low because the cancer has usually spread beyond the pancreas by the time it is detected and pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat.  The cancer has typically spread before detection because there are very few symptoms in the early stages of the cancer and any symptoms that do exist are usually vague, like aches and pains that could easily be attributed to other illnesses.  There is also no screening test like there are for breast or prostate cancer to detect pancreatic cancer at this time.

Pancreatic cancers are difficult to treat for several reasons.  First, pancreatic cancers are resistant to chemotherapy.  The best course of treatment is typically removal of the tumor, but many cases are caught too late for the tumor to be removed because the cancer has usually spread by the time it is detected.

Researchers are working on improving the survival rate for pancreatic cancer.  There are some promising studies that show it may be possible to develop a screening test that could detect pancreatic cancer at earlier stages, which could significantly improve the chances for survival.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.