How Much Do We Really Know About Pancreatic Cancer?

BlogHer Original Post

Shortly after hearing about the passing of Steve Jobs, the 56-year-old co-founder of Apple, I tweeted, "Make a difference, donate what you'd pay for the iPhone 4S to cancer research instead."

Immediately after posting it, I realized that while I, like many technology enthusiasts and Apple fans had known Steve Jobs had been battling pancreatic cancer for almost a decade, did not know the first thing about the disease.


Statement on Apple.com

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is the tenth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, and the fourth leading cause of cancer death, with the highest mortality rate of all the major cancers. Ninety-four percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis and only six percent survive more than five years. A startling 75 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within the first year of diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer begins when abnormal cells grow rampant in the pancreas, the long organs located behind the stomach in the back of the torso. There are two types of cells in the pancreas, the exocrine cells, which produce enzymes, and the endocrine cells, which produce hormones. Cancer originating in the exocrine cells result in 95 percent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses, and less than five percent of pancreatic tumors are endocrine, or islet cell tumors. It is this rare form of pancreatic cancer originating in the endocrine cells with which Steve Jobs was diagnosed.

Treatments for pancreatic cancer vary. According to a report on Time’s health blog:

Standard treatments for pancreatic cancer include the common tumor-fighting strategies -- surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and, most recently, targeted anticancer drugs that may slightly extend patients' lives. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration approved erlotinib, a drug that specifically targets growth factors found on cancer cells, for the treatment of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who are receiving chemotherapy. The drug has been shown in trials to improve overall survival by 23% after a year when added to routine chemotherapy. The tumors in patients being treated with erlotinib and chemo also develop more slowly than those in patients receiving chemotherapy alone.

Unfortunately, the survival rate has not improved in the past 40 years, rising since 1975 to six percent from three percent. In fact, the Pancreatic Cancer Network reports that the number of deaths from pancreatic cancer are increasing, projecting they will grow by 55 percent between 2010 and 2030.

The main problem with pancreatic cancer is how little is known about its risk factors. Symptoms are usually attributed to different conditions. Despite being one of the deadliest types of cancer, there exist no known early detection methods. As a result, pancreatic cancer tends to be diagnosed at later stages: some 52 percent of diagnoses occur after the cancer has already spread to other organs.

"Pancreatic cancer is typically diagnosed at a late stage because it doesn't cause symptoms until it's too late," Allyson Ocean, an oncologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center tells Scientific American. She goes on:

Weight loss, abdominal pain, jaundice [a yellowing of the skin due to toxic buildup in the liver]—those are the most common symptoms. They usually start after the tumor is a significant size. By then, chances are, it has metastasized [that is, spread to other parts of the body].

[...] Depending on where the cancer is in the pancreas, it can affect how soon it's diagnosed. For instance, if the cancer is in the head of the pancreas, which is close to the common bile duct, and it grows and it causes obstruction of the common bile duct, a patient can get jaundiced. And then they could [show symptoms] sooner than someone whose pancreatic cancer is in another part of the pancreas, like the tail. They would not present with jaundice, so we would not have a clue that there was necessarily anything wrong with them.

Pancreatic cancer is a deadly, often silent killer. It is a shame that it would take the death of one of the most forward-thinking men in consumer technology for us to consider how much further we still have to go in terms of developing early detection methods and improving the survival rate of patients suffering from it. To this end, I maintain that instead of getting rid of the iPhones that you have and which still work, that you consider donating the money you would have spent on an iPhone 4S to pancreatic cancer research.

These being difficult times, if the money is not available to you and you would still like to contribute, consider that much cancer research performed today is paid for by the federal government and that Congress has a say in how much money is put forth to the cause annually. You can make a difference by contacting elected officials and letting them know how important it is that they allocate the appropriate amount of funding to pancreatic cancer research. Please visit PanCan.org for more information.

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex on BlogHer, as well as interim Health editor. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer.com

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