While any diagnosis of cancer is life changing, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer can be especially bad. This condition strikes an estimated 53,000 Americans annually and claims about 43,000 lives. With a five-year survival rate that is especially low, less than 10 percent, prognosis for most patients is simply not good. A new technique being explored is showing signs of promise in helping people extend life expectancy in some cases. Called irreversible electroporation, the procedure targets pancreatic cancer tumors at their source.

Irreversible electroporation is sometimes used after other treatments have been proven ineffective. Chemotherapy and radiation, for example, may be performed first. After time, however, pancreatic cancer cells tend to become resistant to chemo medications. The new procedure is still under study and may serve to extend life when other treatment options have been exhausted. It involves creating small incisions to facilitate the placement of long needle probes that essentially bracket the tumor. Ultrasound is used to guide placement. Once a tumor is bracketed, the probes are electrified with a high voltage. This, in turn, causes cancer cells to die.

Although only performed a few hundred times so far, the new procedure is being credited with extending lives of some pancreatic cancer patients. In some cases, the extension has been as much as two years. The procedure is best suited for people with tumors that are smaller than 4 centimeters and only in patients who are otherwise healthy. People with heart conditions, for example, are not good candidates due to the potential for cardiac complications with the electrical voltage.

People who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are urged to work with their doctors to determine the best treatments to explore in their unique cases. The most appropriate treatment recommendations will come from a physician with knowledge about a patient’s particular case. People who are at risk for pancreatic cancer are urged to talk to their doctors, as well, to identify any potential measures that may lower risk, such as losing weight or quitting smoking.