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Steve Jobs' death brings spotlight to rare type of pancreatic cancer

October 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The death of Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs saddened many other pancreatic cancer patients with the same disease.

But Jobs suffered from a rare form of it, one most people have never heard of. Of the 43,000 pancreatic cancers diagnosed each year, he had the rarest form.

It's generally more curable and the survival rate is much higher than the most common type called adenocarcinoma.

Pancreatic neuro-endocrine tumors account for only about 3 percent of cases and they grow much slower. The rare tumors from the hormone producing cells in the pancreas are called islet cells.

Cedars Sinai's Dr. Edwin Wollin is one of the few people in the world who deal solely with this type of cancer.

"Even though it's much lower in incidence than the normal pancreatic cancer, people are able to live for a long time with proper treatment," said Wollin.

Jeannette Shaffner is one of the fortunate few living with neuro-endocrine cancer; she has survived 13 years with the disease.

Shaffner has undergone numerous surgeries, various types of chemotherapy, radiation and medication. All this is to keep her cancer at bay.

"Hold on to hope," said Shaffner. "And some of us do die, but the years vary. And you just hope that around the corner there's something else."

Shaffner lives in the Sacramento area and comes down every three months for exams. She runs a support group because she says it's important for patients to be proactive.

Wollin says thanks to proper treatment and good fortune he has many patients who have survived 20, 30 and even 40 years.

"We want to maintain quality of life, we want to extend life," said Wollin. "We're able to allow people to live quite normal lives even with metastatic cancer."

Symptoms of pancreatic neuro-endocrine cancer may include high levels of insulin, weight loss, nausea, muscle weakness and skin rash. Some patients may experience pain or jaundice caused by the large size of the tumor.


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