published Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Chattanooga plans 5k walk Saturday

Donnie Burns schedules his chemotherapy treatments on Thursdays so he feels well enough to go to his part-time job on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Over the last seven years, the 76-year-old has been through the gauntlet -- surgery, chemo, remission, relapse and another round of chemo.

But every day, Burns is thankful to be alive. He knows he's one of the lucky ones. Only about 20 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live more than a year. Only about 6 percent live five years.

"I've lived on the edge for so long, I don't worry a whole lot," said Burns, who lives with his wife in Ooltewah. "It hasn't been fun, but we're thankful for every day."

This year, nearly 44,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. More than 37,000 will die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. It ranks as the fourth-biggest cancer killer; by 2020 it is expected to be second.

And yet, the disease only gets 2 percent of cancer funding, says Teresa Warren, with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Chattanooga. Warren's husband died three years ago when he was 56, only three weeks before their grandson was born.

Now she fights every day to raise awareness and money to combat the disease.

The action network will have its annual 5k walk on Nov. 10 to raise awareness and funding. Warren's grandsons will be there, as they are every year, sporting their purple ribbons in honor of the grandfather they never met.

"Hopefully, someone else won't have to go through what we did; someone will have hope we didn't," Warren said.

Pancreatic cancer is such a deadly disease because it is hard to detect and hard to treat, said Dr. Mark Womack, a Chattanooga oncologist. And so far, treatment breakthroughs have been few and far between, making it less attractive to researchers.

"It sounds bad, but success breeds success," Womack said. "There hasn't been a lot of success so far, so there is less interest (in research)."

There are no early screening tools for pancreatic cancer. The signs and symptoms are vague. The pancreas is difficult to reach because of its location.

That means many people are diagnosed after the cancer is in its last stages, making surgery impossible, Womack said. Even if a patient has surgery, it is difficult to get all the cancer cells, and survival rates are low. The cancer doesn't respond well to chemotherapy.

As Womack ticks through the barriers in fighting the disease, he realizes how bleak it sounds.

"There has been roadblock after roadblock," he said.

But it is not all grim. Deaths of several well-known people, such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze, have helped to raise awareness of the disease. Hopefully, the attention will lead to more research dollars, Womack said.

In fiscal year 2011, the National Cancer Institute provided $99 million in pancreatic cancer research funding. Lung cancer, the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths got $296 million, while breast cancer, the No. 3 cause, received $625 million.

It's frustrating for Burns, who has struggled to stay alive for seven years and knows any treatment will likely come too late for him

"They tell me I'm stable right now," he said. "I just live a day at a time."

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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