The sad news of the death of Steve Jobs has brought pancreatic cancer into the headlines.
The Apple co-founder underwent surgery in 2004 for an islet cell neuroendocrine tumour, a rare and less aggressive type of pancreatic cancer. This – and excellent medical care – is probably why he lived so long with the disease.
Each year, more than 7,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and around 6,500 die of it. Of the most common cancers, it has the worst survival rate.
Just three per cent of patients live for five years or more after being diagnosed with the disease, a figure which has remained static over the last 40 years.
UK pancreatic cancer survival figures also lag behind other European countries, as well as the US, Canada and Australia, according to a recent report by charity Pancreatic Cancer UK.
In countries such as Canada and Australia, reported survival rates are double those of the UK.
Part of the reason is that the disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose in the early stages. Some of the most common early symptoms – stomach pain, nausea, jaundice, weight loss, fever – can be caused by several other conditions.
However, the Study for Survival report, based on the experiences of nearly 1,000 patients, found that more than 50 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients experience symptoms up to a year before being diagnosed, with nearly a third of all patients making five or more visits to the doctor.
By the time they are diagnosed, the disease is often in its advanced stages, which can limit treatment options.
Pancreatic cancer is more common in older people. Eight out of ten people who develop the disease are aged over 60.
Smoking increases your risk of a number of lethal diseases, including pancreatic cancer. Up to one in five pancreatic cancers may be linked to smoking cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco.
People with the blood groups A, A/B or B are more likely to develop the disease than people with blood group O.
Diabetes may be linked to an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Chronic pancreatitis has been shown to raise the risk of developing the disease.
Around one in ten cases of pancreatic cancer are thought to be caused by inherited genes which predispose them to developing the disease.
People who are already at risk of a number of familial cancer syndromes linked to faulty genes are at a greater risk of pancreatic cancer. These include breast cancer associated with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, familial atypical mole melanoma, hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, familial adenomatous polyposis, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
A healthy lifestyle can help to reduce your risk of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. Limit saturated fat and sugar, eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, try to maintain a healthy weight and keep physically active. There is some evidence to suggest that lycopene (found in tomatoes) and vitamin C may help protect against pancreatic cancer.