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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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.