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YOUR HEALTH: Giving pancreatic cancer patients more time

Surgeons are testing new technology that can prolong the lives of their patients

BALTIMORE — Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive cancer that is often not caught until it is late stage. 

People with cancer that has spread usually live just one year after diagnosis.

Caught early, patients often live three years after diagnosis. 

Now, surgeons are evaluating a high-tech tool called the NanoKnife to increase patients' odds of survival.

It's helped Barbara Valenza who said her family and friends noticed a change in her appearance last year, starting with a sudden drop in weight.

"I lost about 50 pounds before, you know, and people were Barb, you're losing too much weight, you need to go to the doctors."

Barbara and her husband Joe found out she had pancreatic cancer.

Unsettling, but not entirely surprising. 

Barbara lost three family members to pancreatic cancer. 

Surgical oncologist Debashish Bose felt Barbara was a good candidate for treatment with Nanoknife. 

Nanoknife uses a process called IRE, or Irreversible Electroporation

During surgery, doctors insert probes to deliver targeted electrical pulses to the cancer tissue.

"If you give just enough, but not too much, you'll cause live cells to form these pores, but the structures around them don't get destroyed," explained Dr. Bose.

The small holes in the tissue cause the cancer cells to die but protect the delicate blood vessels and organs nearby.

"It might mean the difference between seeing a child married or have a baby, you know, just looking for a little extra time," he added. 

NanoKnife technology is offered in the Chicago area.

Barbara underwent surgery with the NanoKnife in March of 2021. 

Her latest scans show the NanoKnife treatment, along with chemo and radiation, is working.

"The disease hasn't moved any more, and they want to do everything possible so that I will be here." 

Dr. Bose says patients with pancreatic cancer that is locally advanced and who receive chemotherapy and radiation and the nanoknife treatment live an average of two years after diagnosis. 

Patients who receive chemotherapy and radiation alone live 12 to 18 months on average. 

High hopes for the NanoKnife

By the time pancreatic cancer reaches stage 3, it is often too advanced to be able to remove surgically. 

The average life expectancy after diagnosis of stage 3 is about nine to 15 months. 

"Thus far, we're seeing studies that using the NanoKnife virtually doubles life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients," said Tom Cox, director of Radiology, Radiation Oncology and OSF Cancer Services at OSF Saint Francis. 

The NanoKnife probes are placed around the tumor with image guidance and deliver a series of high voltage pulses to cancerous cells. 

Rather than burning or freezing, like the thermal ablation probes, the NanoKnife pulses punch holes through the cell membranes. 

The key is being able to target the diseased cells and minimize peripheral damage.

"This is another option we can show and give them another chance to live longer and maybe the chance to live a lot longer." said Cox.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.