While Apple CEO Steve Jobs has not said why he recently decided to take medical leave from his company, many have speculated the reason is tied to pancreatic cancer.
Jobs was treated in 2004 for a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of pancreatic cancer . Neuroendocrine tumors make up less than 5 percent of all pancreatic tumors, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization in Manhattan Beach, Calif., that champions research and patient and family support.
Patients with Neuroendocrine tumors tend to have a better prognosis than those with the most common form of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinomas, but they are still a very serious diagnosis, said Michelle Duff, the PCAN’s director of research and scientific affairs.
As a group, pancreatic cancers come with a very low survival rate — 75 percent of patients die less than a year after diagnosis, and 94 percent die within five years, according to the PCAN.
What is it about pancreatic cancer that makes it so lethal?
One reason, Duff said, is that the cancer is usually not found until its late stages. "By the time most patients are diagnosed, the disease has already spread," she said.
The cancer often escapes early detection because patients display few warning signs that anything is wrong. When patients do experience symptoms, they are often vague aches and pains, such as indigestion or back pain, that can be attributed to other ailments. And unlike for breast cancer or prostate cancer, there are no screening tools available for pancreatic cancer, she said.
On top of being hard to detect, pancreatic cancer is very resistant to chemotherapy treatments, Duff told MyHealthNewsDaily. And there are only three chemotherapy drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat it.
The best treatment option is surgery to remove the tumor, Duff said, but only 15 percent of patients have their pancreatic cancer detected in time for surgery. In the other cases, the cancer has already spread beyond the pancreas to other organs.
For this reason, the PCAN recommends that patients with pancreatic cancer consider participating in clinical trials testing new treatments.
People with the type of tumor found in Jobs have a better survival rate than most other pancreatic cancer patients: About 42 percent are still alive five years after their diagnosis, according to the PCAN. The reason may be that the cells of a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor multiply more slowly than the tumor cells of adenocarcinomas.
Pass it on: As a group, pancreatic cancers have a poor prognosis because they are often not detected until the late stages of the disease and usually resistant to chemotherapy.
Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @Rachael_MHND.