Rethinking Healthcare

Solving the riddle of Steve Jobs' cancer

Solving the riddle of Steve Jobs' cancer

Posting in Cancer

Pancreatic cancer isn't the fast-growing killer we think it is.

I wonder sometimes. If we called pancreatic cancer Steve Jobs' disease, the way ALS is sometimes called Lou Gehrig's Disease, would we pay more attention to it?

(Picture from CNET.)

The legendary Apple CEO lost his own pancreas to the disease in 2004, and had his liver replaced last year.

It's a tough prognosis -- fewer than 5% of sufferers survive five years. Jobs has now been with us for six.

The good news is a Johns Hopkins study published in today's issue of Nature, indicating pancreatic cancer isn't the fast-growing killer we think it is.

Changes in DNA can start occurring decades before the cancer is detected by a biopsy. A biopsy diagnosis is currently seen as too late to save most people.

The Hopkins researchers are looking at changes in a gene known as KRAS, because that is where most mutations in pancreatic cancers are found. If a test can be developed for the early mutations, people who seem to be at risk can be screened, the cancer found before it develops, and lives will be saved.

But which people should be screened first?

A study published last year in Cancer Causes and Control, conducted in Italy, said frequent meat eaters were twice as likely to get the disease, especially if they also ate a lot of table sugar and potatoes.

A second study, also done in Italy, found a high glycemic index increases the risk by 78 percent. The index was found in diabetes research, and indicates the speed at which your body absorbs carbohydrates.

Check it out at your next blood test.Check this against your present diet. A high glycemic index will be 70 or higher, a low index 55 or lower. Glycemicindex.com offers specific recommendations to get your number down. (Thanks to Gary Wainwright for helping make this clear.)

All of which means I have a pretty high risk for the disease. So, very likely, do you. Most American diets, especially those of the young, are high in meat and potatoes, not to mention sugar. Those genetic tests can't come soon enough.

Maybe, if Jobs is taken from us before we'd like, some of his vast fortune might go to accelerating that work. Pancreatic cancer remains a death sentence, but someday a diagnosis of Steve Jobs' disease might be made in youth, and lead to a long, full life.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure