Steve Jobs’ death has instantaneously raised the public’s awareness of pancreatic cancer.
Other notables have lost the battle against pancreatic cancer, including Patrick Swayze in 2009, legendary saxophonist James Moody last year, and former civil rights leader Reverend James Bevel this year. It was once rumored that Aretha Franklin suffered from pancreatic cancer before she publicly debunked the claims.
However, now pancreatic cancer has the world’s ear.
The survival rate of pancreatic cancer is dismal to begin with. Only 1 of 4 people with pancreatic cancer survive one year past diagnosis. Five years out, only 1 of every 20 are still alive. And, the black community is harder hit.
Black men and women are more likely to develop this relatively rare cancer than other groups, with black men having the worst survival rate (Surprisingly, for unknown reasons, the survival rate of black women is the same as white men and women).
Despite its impact, few have ever heard about the disease prior to Jobs’ death. So, here’s the low-down on this not so often discussed condition.
Who gets pancreatic cancer?
Last year, over 40,000 Americans were diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. In the same year, nearly 37,000 died. The average age at time of diagnosis is 72.
What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas plays two key roles: one is to produce juices to help digest or break down food, and the other is to help control blood sugar.
Type 1 or juvenile diabetes – different from adult diabetes – develops when the pancreas does not function properly.
What does cancer of the pancreas actually mean?
Cancer develops when cells grow abnormally and sometimes in large numbers. These tumors do not function properly can prevent the organ from doing its usual job or invade other parts of the body.
There are two types of cancer of the pancreas.
The most common is an adenocarcinoma, a tumor of the cells that help break down food.
The more rare form of pancreatic cancer — the type that Steve Jobs was rumored to have — is called a neuroendocrine tumor, which develops from the pancreatic cells that produce hormones. These tumors only make up about 5 percent of cases.
How is it diagnosed?
Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed through a biopsy, and often found during other imaging, like ultrasounds, Cat scans or MRIs of the abdomen.
How do you treat it?
The standard surgical treatment involves a Whipple procedure, where the pancreas and part of the small intestine is removed. Job reportedly had surgery as his primary treatment, but the tumor had already spread into his liver.
Pancreatic cancer is aggressive, and in 80 percent of patients the tumor has already spread and surgery is not as successful. For those patients, survival is often less than a year, and other adjuncts like chemotherapy and radiation are used to increase length of survival.
The NIH suggests that those patients consider enrolling in a research trial with newer experimental drugs to increases their chances.
For the rarer neuroendocrine tumors, the approach is slightly different. The most successful treatments involve a combination of surgery, hormone therapy, radiation and chemotherapy.
Are there signs?
Pancreatic cancer can be missed in its early stages because there are no signs or symptoms.
In addition, the signs are similar to many other illnesses, and cancer of the pancreas is not usually top of the list. The pancreas is also hidden behind other organs, which makes it difficult to decipher the symptoms.
Who is at higher risk?
Researchers do not know the exact causes of pancreatic cancer. It is clear that risk increases with age. In the most recent data, there were no reported cases of diagnosed pancreatic cancer under the age of 20.
Cancer of the pancreas is seen more often in people with diabetes and cigarette smokers.
People with repeated inflammation of the pancreas – called pancreatitis — are also at risk. The usual causes of pancreatitis include alcohol intake, certain viruses or gallbladder disease. A few cases run in families.