What killed Apple CEO and computer visionary Steve Jobs? Neither his family nor his company is saying. But Jobs was known to have struggled with pancreatic cancer, a complex and often fast-growing malignancy with a prognosis that is typically grim.
Just how common is pancreatic cancer? What are the different forms? What are the risk factors? Keep clicking to learn more about the pancreas and pancreatic cancer...
What exactly is a pancreas?
It's a six-inch-long organ located deep in the belly between the stomach and backbone. The so-called exocrine part of the pancreas makes enzyme-containing pancreatic juices that help digest food. The endocrine part produces insulin and other hormones. Ninety-five percent of pancreatic cancer arises in the exocrine portion, according to the pancreatic cancer website Pancreatica. Endocrine cancers of the pancreas - known as islet cell tumors or neuroendocrine tumors - are often benign.
What causes pancreatic cancer?
The exact cause is unknown. But the cancer is more common in smokers, obese people, and people with diabetes or chronic inflammation of the pancreas, a painful condition known as pancreatitis. In rare instances, pancreatic cancer is hereditary. Women are slightly more likely than men to get pancreatic cancer, and the risk increases with age. Scientists are trying to determine whether pancreatic cancer can be caused by dietary factors - for instance, consuming lots of animal fat or heavy consumption of alcohol.
Can pancreatic cancer be prevented?
There's no surefire way to avoid pancreatic cancer. But the American Cancer Society says the best advice is to avoid smoking - which is the major preventable risk factor. Eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising are also believed to help.
How common is the disease?
This year there will be 44,030 new cases of cancer and 37,660 deaths from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most patients die within a year, according to Pancreatica. Only about 4 percent of patients can expect to live five years after diagnosis, according to Time.
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer are notoriously vague - which is why the disease often remains undiagnosed until it's reached an advanced stage. Early symptoms include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, and pain in the belly, abdomen or the middle of the back. Some people have dark urine and clay-colored stools that float in the toilet. Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes) is another common symptom. Advanced pancreatic cancer can cause unexplained weight loss, diarrhea, indigestion, and blood clots.
How is the disease diagnosed?
Doctors use a variety of tests to diagnose pancreatic cancer. These include computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound scans of the abdomen and gastrointestinal tract. They may also use needle biopsy, in which tissue from the pancreas is removed with a thin needle and then analyzed in the lab.
How is pancreatic cancer treated?
As with most types of cancer, pancreatic cancer is treated with some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and so-called "targeted" therapy, which involves the use of drugs or monoclonal antibodies to attack specific cancer cells. Which specific treatment regimen is appropriate depends on the patient's age and general health - and upon the tumor's location and whether the disease has spread to other parts of the body. Since pancreatic cancer and its treatment can be painful, pain control is often vitally important.
Can pancreatic cancer be cured?
At this time, pancreatic cancer can be cured only if the disease is caught before it has spread and the tumor can be completely removed by surgery.
How long do patients survive?
The American Cancer Society says about 20 percent of people with pancreatic cancer live at least one year after diagnosis. Fewer than 4 percent are alive five years after diagnosis. But prognosis is heavily dependent upon the stage of the cancer. Five-year survival rates for exocrine pancreatic cancer ranges from 37 percent for people with very early (Stave IA) stage cancer to 1 percent for people with so-called Stage IV cancer.