The pancreas is an elongated, tapered gland that is located behind the stomach and is part of the digestive and endocrine system. The pancreas secretes digestive enzymes that help to break down food and the hormones insulin and glucagon that help regulate the body.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, behind lung cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer. Pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in approximately 44,300 people this year, and approximately 37,660 people will die from it this year. Because there are few if any symptoms of pancreatic cancer in its early stages, when its most treatable, it is often not diagnosed until abdominal pain (or severe back pain) or jaundice (or low glucose levels) leads to its diagnosis, which is often too late (95% of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will ultimately die from it). Most pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed in people 55 or older and the average age at diagnosis is 72. African-Americans have a higher incidence rate of pancreatic cancer than whites, for reasons that are not understood.
There are two types of pancreatic cancer: exocrine tumors (the more common and more aggressive type; adenocarcinoma begins in the cells of the gland (typically in the ducts) and is the most common form of exocrine tumor) and neuroendocrine tumors (only about 1% of all pancreatic cancers are this type). The five-year survival rate for adenocarcinoma is less than 5% while the five-year survival rate for neuroendocrine tumors is between 50% and 80%. Steve Jobs had neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. It appears that his survival rate after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was consistent with the survival rate statistics: he underwent pancreatic surgery in 2004.
The usual treatment of pancreatic cancer is the surgical removal of the pancreas (if diagnosed before it spreads outside of the pancreas). The FDA approved two new drugs this year for the treatment of neuropancreatic cancer (Everolimus (Afinitor) and Sunitinib malate (Sutent)). Research is being undertaken with regard to antibody and nanoparticle therapies as well as genetic therapy in which a person’s particular genetics is used to target the person’s particular tumor.
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