Steve Jobs succumbed, at the age of 56, to a rare form of pancreatic cancer.
A few days earlier Dr. Ralph Steinman — a brilliant pioneer in the study of the immune system and who was using his research to fight his own battle with pancreatic cancer — also passed away, having lived 4 /12 years after he was diagnosed. Three days later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.
We can only imagine, with heavy hearts, what else these two remarkable men would have accomplished had they not be struck down by this deadly disease.
Closer to home, a much-loved mother at my daughters’ school, and a breast cancer survivor, died from pancreatic cancer last fall, leaving a devastated husband and 13-year-old daughter. A very close friend’s mother also succumbed to pancreatic cancer last year, a few short months after having been diagnosed.
All of them over — or close to — 50. This is clearly a cancer that targets my age group, and I’m nervous.
In early January, not knowing how else to express my grief, frustration, and fear, I decided to run in the ING NYC Marathon — which is November 6th — to raise much-needed money for research, treatment and support of those who contract pancreatic cancer, with the hope that with more money will bring more knowledge.
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a leading nationwide group of people working together to advance research, support patients and create hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer, there are two main reasons why pancreatic cancer continues to have the highest mortality rate of all major cancers:
- There are no detection tools or screening tests to diagnose the disease in its early stages when surgical removal of the tumor is possible.
- There are not enough funds behind pancreatic cancer research to discover the right screening tests: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent an estimated 89.4 million on pancreatic cancer research in 2009. This represented a mere 2% of the NCI’s approximate5 billion cancer research budget for that year.
Following are just a few of the sobering statistics on pancreatic cancer, also from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network:
- Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
- In 2011, 43,140 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States, and 36,800 will die from the disease.
- Pancreatic cancer is one of the few cancers for which the survival rate has not improved substantially over nearly 40 years.
- Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. 94% of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis — only 6% will survive more than five years. 75% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis.
- The average life expectancy after diagnosis with metastatic disease is just three to six months.
- Few risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer are defined. Family history of the disease, smoking, age, and diabetes are risk factors.
- Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague symptoms that could indicate many different conditions within the abdomen or gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms include pain (usually abdominal or back pain), weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), loss of appetite, nausea, changes in stool, and diabetes.
- Treatment options for pancreatic cancer are limited. Surgical removal of the tumor is possible in only approximately 15% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Chemotherapy or chemotherapy together with radiation is typically offered to patients whose tumors cannot be removed surgically. Only three drugs are FDA‐approved for the treatment of pancreatic cancer: fluorouracil (5‐FU), gemcitabine (Gemzar®), and erlotinib (Tarceva®).
Source for statistics: American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2010. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2010 and NCI Funded Research Portfolio, http://fundedresearch.cancer.gov (Accessed May 2010).
When I run in the ING NYC Marathon on November 6th to raise awareness of, and money for, pancreatic cancer research, I will be holding the memories of my two friends who succumbed to this disease close to my heart, and knowing that I’m helping the effort in my own small way will push me over the finish line. But, Steve Jobs, Dr. Ralph Steinman, and the 43,000 men and women who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year will be in my heart and mind, as well.
Someone asked me recently why I was spending months to train for, and run in, the grueling NYC Marathon to raise awareness and money for pancreatic cancer research. My answer?
Because I can.