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Why Is Pancreatic Cancer So Deadly?

According to a Feb. 16 article in the National Enquirer, Apple CEO Steve Jobs "has only six weeks to live." Jobs, who took a medical leave of absence Jan. 17 to focus on his health, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2004 a disease that kills 80 percent of its sufferers within a year. Jobs is lucky to have survived for this long, but if the Enquirer's experts are right, the end is finally in sight for him.

Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly?

A diseased pancreas is not, in itself, a death sentence. It is the collateral damage to other organs that makes pancreatic cancer so dangerous.

The pancreas is a six-inch-long organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin. It continues to function semi-normally even with a tumor growing inside. For this reason, symptoms of pancreatic cancer which include jaundice (yellow skin caused by the accumulation of toxins), abdominal and back pain, nausea and weight loss usually don't set in until advanced stages of the disease. Consequently, diagnosis often comes late.

At that point, the tumors are significant in size and may encapsulate major veins and arteries. Furthermore, because the pancreas is located at a junction of several organs, cancerous tissue often spreads to the liver, gallbladder or intestines early on. Surgical removal of widespread tumors isn't viable.

If doctors identify a pancreatic tumor while it is still localized, it may be surgically removed along with most of the pancreas, except the insulin-producing region. Unfortunately, though, cancer returns after surgery 85 percent of the time.

Patients initially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer most often die of liver failure after tumors spread to the liver.

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Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover

Natalie Wolchover
Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She hold a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Follow Natalie on Google+.