Early this week I was saddened to hear of a former colleague’s death from pancreatic cancer. Dr. Ralph Steinman, a physician-researcher at the Rockefeller University, received a Nobel Prize for his work on the innate immune system. For many, news of Ralph’s death at 68 years arrived synchronously with word of his award.
Yesterday we learned that Steve Jobs, Apple creator and leader, died at 56 years from a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas. The tech-based, Twitter-type tributes reveal the breadth of this man’s influence on our world.
These two men faced completely different forms of cancer in the pancreas. This news underscores the importance of pathology in cancer diagnosis and treatment. For a patient to make an informed treatment decision, which might be to decline treatment, a patient needs to know what kind of cancer they have, what is the prognosis, and how might therapy change the course of the particular illness.
Jobs had a neuroendocrine tumor. According to the NCI, islet cell tumors of the pancreas are quite rare, with estimates of between 200 and 1000 new cases per year. These can be distinguished from other cancers by special stains and molecular tests. Just months ago, the FDA approved two new drugs for treatment of neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas: Afinitor (Everolimus) and Sutent (Sunitinib).
This kind of cancer can arise in almost any body part, but it’s most commonly found in endocrine (hormone-secreting) organs. In the pancreas, it can develop from islet cells that manufacture hormones such as insulin. Symptoms may occur if the tumors secrete active hormones, with effects elsewhere in the body, or if they cause pain by expanding and pressing on nearby nerves, vessels or ducts. These tumors tend to grow slowly and the prognosis is relatively good; doctors may advise some patients to hold off on treatment until symptoms occur.
The usual form of pancreatic cancer is of the exocrine cells, those that produce and secrete digestive enzymes into the bile duct and small intestine. According to the American Cancer Society, there are over 44,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer yearly in the U.S. It tends to occur in the elderly and is slightly more common in men. Cigarette smoking is one of the few certain disposing factors; the causes are largely unknown. The prognosis for this kind of pancreatic disease remains poor, on average. Standard treatments, according to the NCI, include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and palliative care.