MORRISTOWN, NJ -- Dr. Angela Alistar, a board-certified medical oncologist and medical director of GI medical oncology at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center, spoke at the Morristown Women in Business Monthly Meeting on Nov. 12.
Alistar, who is a pioneer in pancreatic cancer research addressed the attendees during a lunch, noting that up until recently there’s been very little optimism when it comes to pancreatic cancer.
“The good news is that the clinical research really has changed dramatically,” she said. “Five to 10 years ago, you ran out of treatments and looked for a clinical trial. We’re putting novel treatments up front now.”
Alistar recently unveiled the results of her phase I clinical study in pancreatic cancer, using novel agent CPI -613 in combination with chemotherapy as a treatment protocol.The results of Dr. Alistar’s phase 1 trial indicates that the average survival of participants is 22 months, compared with 11 months on standard treatments. Several participants have been alive for years, she added.
Nevertheless, Dr. Alistar acknowledged that pancreatic cancer still is a deadly illness, with a five-year survival rate of nine percent. Part of the problem, she asserted, is that there are no good screening tests for the disease, which typically is caught at an advanced stage. Another issue is that patients--and doctors, too--often ignore symptoms for too long.
“If you have gastrointestinal symptoms not relieved by over-the-counter drugs, get an endoscopy or other evaluation,” she urged. “If people have vague symptoms or don’t feel well, they need to take it seriously.”
Dr. Alistar told the group that she wants to see people advocating for themselves in the healthcare arena and trusting themselves when they sense that something isn’t right. She is busy preparing to open a program at Morristown Medical Center that will serve family members of people with pancreatic cancer, who are at higher risk of developing the disease themselves. The program will keep a clinical registry of participants in order to develop a multidisciplinary approach to determining the best screening tests for this population.
Dr. Alistar said she spends time with many family members of pancreatic cancer patients who are concerned about their own chances of getting the disease, even though just seven percent of people who get pancreatic cancer have a family history. “The anxiety is very high,” she said. “But we can all do things that can decrease our risk.”
One of the ways people can mitigate their risk of pancreatic cancer--or any cancer, for that matter--is with diet. “In my 10 years of practicing oncology, I have not seen a patient who is vegan with cancer,” Dr. Alistar noted. “I have eliminated or dramatically reduced the amount of animal protein in my diet.” A largely plant-based diet, or a Mediterranean diet focusing on whole grains, legumes, and produce, is a good start, she offered, adding, “The more plants you eat, the less meat you’re going to eat--it’s actionable.”
If pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, Dr. Alistar said, it’s important to find the right doctor or team of doctors:
“Survival rates are higher if you use a team that has done pancreatic cancer surgeries before", she said. "You really want to know what your physicians have done so far. Also, if you’re seeing a doctor who does not offer clinical trials, you’re seeing the wrong doctor.”
Dr. Alistar said that she considers her patients’ treatment to be successful if they’re functioning at about an 80 percent level.
“The most important part of pancreatic cancer care, or cancer care in general, is symptom management,” she said. “It’s really, really important.”
Morristown’s integrative medicine, support services and palliative care team assists cancer patients in their quest to have a good quality of life by offering free massages, music therapy, anxiety management, financial counseling, among other benefits.
Several of the luncheon attendees indicated that they showed up because they had close family or friends with pancreatic cancer and wanted to learn more.
“I know a lot of people who’ve had pancreatic cancer, and none of them are survivors,” said Liz Broos, who runs a home-based business in Basking Ridge.
Laura Cummings, who is the executive director and chief engineer for the Southeast Morris County Municipal Utilities Association, was particularly focused on identifying early signs of the disease, having lost her mother and a close friend to it.
Another attendee, Nancy Bangiola, the executive director of the Morris County Bar Association, shared that her older brother had just recently been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, although he was not pursuing treatment in a clinical trial. She hoped to learn as much as possible from Dr. Alistar and perhaps join her high-risk program when it opens.
“What can I do for my brother?” she asked. “I can be knowledgeable. I can see him safely to the end.”
Janet StraightArrow, a spiritual healer and teacher in Morristown, said that Dr. Alistar’s advice that people pay attention to their bodies and advocate for themselves really resonated with her.
“I’m glad to see more medical professionals addressing this, finally,” she said. “Women especially don’t take care of themselves. They take care of everybody else.”
For more information on Dr. Alistar and other team members of Atlantic Hematology Oncology at Morristown Medical Center, or to make an appointment, go to https://www.atlantichealth.org/locations/atlantic-medical-group/hematology-oncology.html.