Pancreatic cancer, complications from which claimed the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, is one of the fastest spreading cancers, experts say.
This form of cancer is an aggressive, fast growing type of the disease which often takes its victims within five years after diagnosis.
Tumours are usually located on the head of the pancreas — an organ that helps break down food so it can be absorbed into the body — where they can block the bile duct and cause jaundice.
Professor Minoti Apte, from the University of New South Wales School of Medical Sciences in Australia, said pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the western world.
“It’s particularly devastating because it’s got a dismal prognosis with a five-year survival rate of less than five per cent in a lot of cases,” Apte, the Indian-origin doctor, said.
“There’s many reasons, but one of the major reasons is that it’s often diagnosed late. It can be associated with vague symptoms, so it’s often diagnosed late and by the time it is diagnosed it has often metastasised or spread to other organs,” Dr. Apte was quoted as saying by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Each year, about 44,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S., and 37,000 people die of the disease, the Time magazine reported.
The pancreas contains two types of glands: exocrine glands that produce enzymes that break down fats and proteins, and endocrine glands that make hormones like insulin that regulate sugar in the blood.
Jobs, 56, died of tumours originating in the endocrine glands, which are among the rarer forms of pancreatic cancer.
In 2004, Jobs underwent surgery to remove the cancer from his pancreas. In 2009, after taking another leave of absence from Apple, Jobs had a liver transplant in an effort to retain as much of his organ function as possible after his cancer had spread beyond the pancreas.
According to experts, Jobs’ was an uphill medical battle.
“He not only had cancer, he was battling the immune suppression after the liver transplant,” Dr Timothy Donahue of the UCLA Center for Pancreatic Disease in Los Angeles, who had not treated Jobs, told MSNBC.com.
He noted that most patients who receive liver transplants survive about two years after the surgery.
Standard treatments for pancreatic cancer include the common tumour-fighting strategies — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and, most recently, targeted anti-cancer drugs that may slightly extend patients’ lives.