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Pancreatic Cancer Health Center

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FAQ: Steve Jobs' Pancreatic Cancer

Uncommon Islet Cell Tumor Often Curable -- Unless It Comes Back
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 25, 2011 -- Steve Jobs gave no specific explanation for his sudden resignation as Apple CEO. But one possible health reason is that his pancreatic cancer may have returned.

If Jobs had suffered the most common form of pancreatic cancer, adenocarcinoma, the chances are he would have died soon after his 2003 diagnosis. But as Jobs later revealed, he had an unusual form of pancreatic cancer known as a neuroendocrine tumor or islet cell carcinoma.

In 2004, nine months after his diagnosis, Jobs underwent surgery to remove the tumor. In 2009 he underwent a liver transplant, a procedure appropriate for only a small number of patients with this uncommon form of pancreatic cancer.

What is known about this kind of cancer? Can it be cured? What if it comes back? WebMD answers these and other questions.

What Is a Neuroendocrine Tumor/Islet Cell Carcinoma?

When doctors discover that a patient has pancreatic cancer, the outlook usually is grim. But once in a while -- about 200 to 1,000 times a year in the U.S. -- it turns out to be an islet cell carcinoma.

Islet cells are the hormone-producing cells of the pancreas. It's no walk in the park to be diagnosed with cancer of these cells. But these cancers include "a highly treatable and often curable collection of tumors," according to the National Cancer Institute.

The course of disease depends on which of these cells become cancerous. Sometimes, as the tumor cells grow in number, they emit various hormones. This can have weird results, such as the inability to digest fats or sudden growth of the hands or feet. These hormone-emitting tumors often are benign.

Sometimes islet cell tumors don't make hormones. This avoids those bizarre effects. But 90% of these tumors are malignant, meaning that they eventually are fatal if left untreated.

Can Neuroendocrine Tumors/Islet Cell Carcinomas Be Cured?

The first choice of treatment for islet cell carcinoma is surgery, says David Levi, MD, professor of clinical surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Levi did not treat Jobs or have access to his medical records. His comments are about islet cell carcinoma in general and not specifically about Jobs' case.

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