Kevin Rabishaw had the classic signs – persistent back and abdominal pain, sudden onset of diabetes and pronounced weight loss – but as too often happens with pancreatic cancer, his symptoms weren’t diagnosed early enough to make a difference.
Despite having surgery to remove a large tumour on his pancreas, followed by rounds of chemotherapy, Rabishaw died last month at age 57, just nine months after his diagnosis.
It is an all too familiar story for health professionals and cancer advocacy groups who deal with this malignancy, the fourth deadliest cancer affecting Canadians, which accounts for six per cent of all cancer deaths in the country.
Yet despite having such a lethal profile – only seven per cent of patients live five years from diagnosis – pancreatic cancer is among the most poorly funded when it comes to research dollars, with only about two per cent of all monies raised for cancer go to this type of tumour.
“It has become almost a forgotten cancer, and yet it’s so devastating to the people who get it,” said Michelle Capobianco, executive director of the Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation (PCCF), an organization that raises funds for research, awareness and education.
“The reality is that there have been very few advances in the last 40 years,” she said. “So basically what you would be told 40 years ago is what you’re told today.”
The advocacy group is hoping to change that with a partnership to boost research into pancreatic cancer. Along with the Cancer Research Society, PCCF is launching the Pancreatic Oncology Network, or PancOne, a two-year joint project to raise $2 million for research committed solely to the fight against this cancer.
Launched on Thursday, the partnership follows a bold multimedia awareness-raising campaign called “Assumptions Can Be Deadly.”
This year, an estimated 5,500 Canadians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 4,800 will die from the disease, Canadian Cancer Society statistics indicate.
The pancreas is a finger-like organ that releases enzymes into the small intestine to aid digestion and insulin into the bloodstream to control how the body uses food for energy.
But because it is buried deep within the abdomen, symptoms of pancreatic cancer typically don’t become evident until the disease is quite advanced, leading to its description as a silent killer. More than 60 per cent of tumours are diagnosed at a late stage, usually having spread, or metastasized to other parts of the body, thereby limiting chances for successful treatment.
“In many cases, it’s silent until its already metastatic,” said Dr. Steven Gallinger, a surgical oncologist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto.
“Only about 20 per cent of patients are eligible for surgery because the other 80 per cent have metastatic disease when we meet them for the first time,” he said, adding that this cancer also tends to be highly resistant to chemotherapy.
Although cancer of the pancreas can strike adults at any age, about 90 per cent of those who develop the disease are over 55, with an average age of about 70.
While the cause isn’t yet known, Gallinger said genetics and lifestyle factors such as excess alcohol consumption and eating a western diet high in red meat and low in fibre seem to be risk factors for the disease.
“Then the convincing factor that’s definitely associated is smoking,” he said, noting that tobacco use raises the risk of developing pancreatic cancer by two to three times.
Despite what may seem a grim outlook, Gallinger said the PancOne partnership offers hope that increased dedicated funding will lead to research breakthroughs in the next few years.
The $2-million target could attract matching or even higher grants from other funding institutions and government, boosting overall research dollars, he said.
“For a long time, we were kind of the orphan, unnoticed, unloved research group around the world,” Gallinger said of scientists probing the mysteries of pancreatic cancer, “meaning advocacy was minimal, so governments didn’t respond well to the need for more work.
“There’s also been frustrations in attracting young people to try to delve into this challenge … (but) in the last 10 to 20 years, there’s been significant improvement in awareness, which gradually trickles out to funding agencies.”
For Kevin Rabishaw, the need for greater awareness of pancreatic cancer and its symptoms – as well as increased research funding – was close to his heart, said Bryna Rabishaw, his wife of 31 years.
Before his death, he took part in a video made by PCCF “to help so the next patient has more time with their family,” she recalled her husband saying.
Rabishaw, an avid outdoorsman who included making maple syrup among his many hobbies, also left a legacy to his family and friends in the form of a sugar shack on the couple’s property in Sharon, Ont., just north of Toronto, which he designed and had built by a carpenter in the weeks leading up to his death.
“The maple syrup season for 2017 became a really, really big deal for us,” Bryna Rabishaw said tearfully, adding that their adult son and daughter helped him tap maple trees near their property and their dad taught them how to boil it off and bottle the resulting syrup.
It was a hobby he relished, and his family and friends plan to continue it next year in his memory.
While she doesn’t blame doctors for missing the red flags of her husband’s cancer – PCCF says many health professionals can be unaware of the signs – Rabishaw hopes his story will encourage others with suspicious symptoms to get them investigated quickly.
“If they could have put the pieces together earlier,” she said, “I truly believe that he would have still been here.”
With files from Allison Vuchnich and Veronica Tang