Approximately 60,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed each year in the US and less than 10 percent of those people will survive. Among the most devastating of cancers, it cannot be prevented, there is no definitive screening test and symptoms don’t occur until the cancer spreads to other areas of the body.
Recognizing the complexity and expertise needed to care for patients with this dreaded disease, the Northwell Health Cancer Institute on Wednesday announced the opening of its new Pancreatic Cancer Center, featuring a multidisciplinary team of surgical, medical and radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, interventional radiologists, pathologists, endocrinologists, genetic counselors, social workers, nutritionists, and pain management and palliation specialists.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Northwell clinicians leading the program were joined by a Long Island native who recently underwent surgery to remove a tumor within her pancreas, as well as representatives from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Lustgarten Foundation, which are collaborating with Northwell in the fight against pancreatic cancer.
“Diagnosis and treatment of patients with pancreatic cancer can be very challenging because the cancer is usually detected late, making treatment complex,” said Richard Barakat, MD, physician-in-chief and director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute. “Northwell has designed its new center with renowned experts in all aspects of pancreatic cancer, including diagnosis and staging, surgical, medical and radiation oncology, as well as palliative care. We are 100 percent committed to defeating pancreatic cancer.”
As an integrated health system, Northwell is able to collaborate with physicians in multiple specialties and handle any other medical conditions patients may have. At the new center, patients and their families work closely with an experienced nurse navigator who facilitates communication and guides them every step of the way, Dr. Barakat said.
Chicago resident Tonic Fabric, 50, who grew up in Atlantic Beach on Long Island, shared the story of her courageous battle against pancreatic cancer, which was discovered in July 2017 after she returned from a vacation to Spain with her husband, Darren. While there, the then 48-year-old experienced shooting pains in her stomach and back. Upon arriving home and after a whirlwind of appointments and a battery of tests (she was sure it was an ulcer), Ms. Fabric received the diagnosis that would “rock” her world and that of her family’s. Because the tumor was in the tail of her pancreas and the cancer had spread, her doctors in Chicago said she would never be a candidate for surgery. They said the only way for her to stay alive was to continue chemotherapy for the rest of her life.
After 33 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Ms. Fabric consulted with pancreatic cancer surgeon Matthew Weiss, MD, who was then at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Shortly thereafter in February 2019, Dr. Weiss was recruited to the Northwell Health Cancer Institute as deputy-physician-in-chief and director of surgical oncology, along with other pancreatic cancer specialists. Because of Ms. Fabric’s remarkable response to chemotherapy, which shrank her tumors, Dr. Weiss suggested an aggressive approach to surgery – he would remove the area of the pancreas where the tumor originated, along with the spleen, a portion of the stomach and omentum.
“After meeting with Dr. Weiss, for the first time I felt hopeful again and confident in him and the procedure he explained,” said Ms. Fabric.
Underscoring recent advances in treating pancreatic cancer, Dr. Weiss said, “Chemotherapy has now improved to the point where it’s possible for some patients who may benefit from surgery who would never have been candidates before, even those with metastases."
Dr. Weiss performed Ms. Fabric’s surgery in March 7 at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park -- the hospital where she was born in 1969. “No two pancreas cancers are the same and the goal in certain cases like Ms. Fabric’s is to offer surgery only as a cure,” Dr. Weiss said. “Three months after Ms. Fabric’s surgery there is no detectable cancer right now.”
As part of their strategic affiliation with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), Northwell’s pancreatic cancer specialists are working closely with David Tuveson, MD, PhD, director of the CSHL Cancer Center and chief scientist at the Lustgarten Foundation, and one of the pioneers of organoid research. Northwell and CSHL researchers are developing new therapies, including the use of organoids (growing a tumor in the lab from actual tumor cells in order to test treatments.)
“Our goal is to combat pancreatic cancer and to find a cure,” said Dr. Tuveson., “We can only achieve that with cutting-edge science, coupled with the best medical, surgical advances and radiation oncology, and working collaboratively.”
On June 12, Ms. Fabric celebrated her 50th birthday with her husband, three daughters at a huge gathering of family and friends.
“Like so many others who have fought this disease, I’m a fighter! We stare down cancer and we will win,” she said. “I am looking forward to walking into Dr. Weiss’ office two years from now and saying, `I am a survivor.’”