When Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, many people were both saddened by his loss and hopeful that his very public experience with this ghastly disease might prompt a race for the cure.
But medicine moves slowly. With the loss of Steve Jobs and, just weeks before him, Nobel Prize recipient Ralph Steinman, we’re struck again by the fact that pancreatic cancers are a horribly tough nut to crack.
As with everything he did, Steve Jobs surpassed expectations and forged new territory in surviving his disease, described as a rare form of neuroendocrine tumor on his pancreas, for more than five years. But his was an exceptional case.
The five-year survival rate for the more common form of pancreatic cancer is less than 4 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s because there’s no way (yet) to detect it early: It creeps up quietly, not causing noticeable symptoms until the tumor on the pancreas has grown too large to be surgically removed or the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, typically the liver.
An estimated 44,030 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2011; 37,660 of them will die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Despite some recent developments in detecting and treating pancreatic cancer, the numbers haven’t budged in years. As the CDC reported in 2010, between 1999 and 2007, the death rate “decreased by 9.6 percent for lung cancer, 23.9 percent for prostate cancer, 15.2 percent for breast cancer, and 19.6 percent for colon cancer. The death rate for pancreatic cancer did not change significantly during this period.”
As I wrote when Pausch died, pancreatic cancer research doesn’t attract the attention that many of us think it should. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t scientists out there working hard to crack this nut and others working to raise awareness and provide support for those affected by this disease. But finding ways to detect pancreatic cancer early enough to make a difference, to effectively treat it, to improve survival rates -- or even to prevent it -- will require the kind of tenacity and visionary thinking that Steve Jobs brought to the table.