The Five-Year Survival Rate for Pancreatic Cancer Is Increasing

John Whyte, MD; Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA


February 13, 2023

JOHN WHYTE: Hello, I'm Dr. John Whyte, the Chief Medical Officer of WebMD. The American Cancer Society released some encouraging data recently that showed a decline in some cancers. One of those cancers was pancreatic cancer, which historically has had a very low survival rate. What's going on here? Are we doing better with diagnosis, treatment, a combination?

Joining me today is Dr. Lynn Matrisian. She is PanCAN's chief science officer. Dr. Matrisian, thanks for joining me today. It's great to see you.

LYNN MATRISIAN: Great to be here. Thank you.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, tell me what your first reaction was when you saw the recent data from the American Cancer Society. What one word would you use?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Hopeful. I think hopeful in general that survival rates are increasing, not for all cancers, but for many cancers. We continue to make progress. Research is making a difference. And we're making progress against cancer in general.

JOHN WHYTE: You're passionate, as our viewers know, about pancreatic cancer. And that's been one of the hardest cancers to treat, and one of the lowest survival rates. But there's some encouraging news that we saw, didn't we?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yes. So the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer went up a whole percentage. It's at 12% now. And what's really good is it was at 11% last year. It was at 10% the year before. So that's two years in a row that we've had an increase in the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer. So we're hopeful that's a trajectory that we can really capitalize on is how fast we're making progress in this disease.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to put it into context, Lynn. Because some people might be thinking, 1%? Like you're excited about 1%? That doesn't seem that much. But correct me if I'm wrong. A one percentage point increase means 641 more loved ones will enjoy life's moments, as you put it, five years after their diagnosis that otherwise wouldn't have. What does that practically mean to viewers?

LYNN MATRISIAN: That means that more than 600 people in the United States will hug a loved one five years after that diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It is a very deadly disease. But we're going to, by continuing to make progress, it gives those moments to those people. And it means that we're making progress against the disease in general.

JOHN WHYTE: So even 1%, and 1% each year, does have value.

LYNN MATRISIAN: It has a lot of value.

JOHN WHYTE: What's driving this improvement? Is it better screening? And we're not so great still in screening a pancreatic cancer. Is it the innovation in cancer treatments? What do you think is accounting for what we hope is this trajectory of increases in five-year survival?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Right, so the nice thing the reason that we like looking at five-year survival rates is because it takes into account all of those things. And we have actually made progress in all of those things. So by looking at those that are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in general as a whole, and looking at their survival, we are looking at better treatments. People who are getting pancreatic cancer later are living longer as a result of better treatments.

But it's not just that. It's also, if you're diagnosed earlier, your five-year survival rate is higher. More people who are diagnosed early live to five years than those that are diagnosed later. So within that statistic, there are more people who are diagnosed earlier. And those people also live longer. So it takes into account all of those things, which is why we really like to look at that five-year survival rate for a disease like pancreatic cancer.

JOHN WHYTE: Where are we on screening? Because we always want to catch people early. That gives them that greatest chance of survival. Have we made much improvements there? And if we have, what are they?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Well we have made improvements there are more people that are now diagnosed with localized disease than there were 20 years ago. So that is increasing. And we're still doing it really by being aware of the symptoms right now. Being aware that kind of chronic indigestion, lower back pain that won't go away, these are signs and symptoms. And especially things like jaundice --

JOHN WHYTE: That yellow color that they might see.

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yes, that yellow colors in your eye, that's a really important symptom that would certainly send people to the doctor in order to look at this. So some of it is being more aware and finding the disease earlier. But what we're really hoping for is some sort of blood test or some sort of other way of looking through medical records and identifying those people that need to go and be checked.

JOHN WHYTE: Now we chatted about that almost two years ago. So tell me the progress that we've made. How are we doing?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yeah, well there's a number of companies now that have blood tests that are available. They still need more work. They still need more studies to really understand how good they are at finding pancreatic cancer early. But we didn't have them a couple of years ago. And so it's really a very exciting time in the field, that there's companies that were taking advantage of research for many years and actually turning it into a commercial product that is available for people to check.

JOHN WHYTE: And then what about treatments? More treatment options today than there were just a few years ago, but still a lot of progress to be made. So when we talk about even 12% five-year survival, we'd love to see it much more. And you talk about, I don't want to misquote, so correct me if I'm wrong. Your goal is 20%. Five-year survival by 2030. That's not too far. So, Lynn, how are we going to get there?

LYNN MATRISIAN: OK, well this is our mission. And that's exactly our goal, 20% by 2030. So we've got some work to do. And we are working at both fronts. You're right, we need better treatments. And so we've set up a clinical trial platform where we can look at a lot of different treatments much more efficiently, much faster, kind of taking advantage of an infrastructure to do that. And that's called Precision Promise. And we're excited about that as a way to get new treatments for advanced pancreatic cancer.

And then we're also working on the early detection end. We think an important symptom of pancreatic cancer that isn't often recognized is new onset diabetes, sudden diabetes in those over 50 where that person did not have diabetes before. So it's new, looks like type 2 diabetes, but it's actually caused by pancreatic cancer.

And so we have an initiative, The Early Detection Initiative, that is taking advantage of that. And seeing if we image people right away based on that symptom, can we find pancreatic cancer early? So we think it's important to look both at trying to diagnose it earlier, as well as trying to treat it better for advanced disease.

JOHN WHYTE: Yeah. You know, at WebMD we're always trying to empower people with better information so they can also become advocates for their health. You're an expert in advocacy on pancreatic cancer. So what's your advice to listeners as to how they become good advocates for themselves or advocates in general for loved ones who have pancreatic cancer?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yeah. Yeah. Well certainly, knowledge is power. And so the real thing to do is to call the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. This is what we do. We stay up on the most current information. We have very experienced case managers who can help navigate the complexities of pancreatic cancer at every stage of the journey.

Or if you have questions about pancreatic cancer, call PanCAN. Go to and give us a call. Because it's really that knowledge, knowing what it is that you need to get more knowledge about, how to advocate for yourself is very important in a disease, in any disease, but in particular a disease like pancreatic cancer.

JOHN WHYTE: And I don't want to dismiss the progress that we've made, that you've just referenced in terms of the increased survival. But there's still a long way to go. We need a lot more dollars for research. We need a lot more clinical trials to take place. What's your message to a viewer who's been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer or a loved one? What's your message, Lynn, today for them?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Well, first, get as much knowledge as you can. Call PanCAN, and let us help you help your loved one. But then help us. Let's do research. Let's do more research. Let's understand this disease better so we can make those kinds of progress in both treatment and early detection.

And PanCAN works very hard at understanding the disease and setting up research programs that are going to make a difference, that are going to get us to that aggressive goal of 20% survival by 2030. So there is a lot of things that can be done, raise awareness to your friends and neighbors about the disease, lots of things that that will help this whole field.

JOHN WHYTE: What's your feeling on second opinions? Given that this can be a difficult cancer to treat, given that there's emerging therapies that are always developing, when you have a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is it important to consider getting a second opinion?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yes. Yes, it is. And our case managers will help with that process. We do think it's important.

JOHN WHYTE: Because sometimes, Lynn, people just want to get started, right? Get it out of me. Get treatment. And sometimes getting a second opinion, doing some genomic testing can take time. So what's your response to that?

LYNN MATRISIAN: Yeah. Yeah. Well we say, your care team is very important. Who is on your care team, and it may take a little time to find the right people on your care team. But that is an incredibly important step. Sometimes it's not just one person. Sometimes you need more than one doctor, more than one nurse, more than one type of specialty to help you deal with this. And taking the time to do that is incredibly important.

Yes, you need to -- you do need to act. But act smart. And do it with knowledge. Do it really understanding what your options are, and advocate for yourself.

JOHN WHYTE: And surround yourself as you reference with that right care team for you, because that's the most important thing when you have any type of cancer diagnosis. Dr. Lynn Matrisian, I want to thank you for taking time today.

LYNN MATRISIAN: Thank you so much, John.

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on February 9, 2023

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.