Steve Jobs: A Closer Look at the Cancer That Struck Down a Legend

Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

It’s easier to just say Steve Jobs has pancreatic cancer. It is true, but not entirely accurate. To explain the ins and outs of his actual diagnosis, islet cell neuroendocrine tumor (NET), it’s hard not to stumble over medical jargon, because, well, it’s complicated.

Still, I’m going to try: NET starts in the hormone producing tissue of pancreas. It’s a rare, slow-growing type of cancer, and as long as the tumor is not over producing hormones, like insulin, it can generally be surgically removed, no chemotherapy or radiation needed.

After his first surgery in 2004, Jobs shared his diagnosis and treatment in an email to his employees at the time. “I had a very rare form of pancreatic cancer called an islet cell neuroendocrine tumor, which represents about 1 percent of the total cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed each year, and can be cured by surgical removal if diagnosed in time (mine was). I will not require any chemotherapy or radiation treatments.”

According to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, NET tumors make up less 5 percent of pancreatic tumors, but the five year survival rate can be as high as 87 percent. If the cancer spreads, though, that life expectancy drops to 23 months. Adenocarcinoma pancreatic cancer — the kind that killed Patrick Swayze — is the most common type, accounting for 95 percent of pancreatic cancer and it has a very low survival rates (only 6 percent of patients past stage 2B are alive five years after diagnosis; just 1 percent with stage 4).

In 2009, Jobs’ cancer returned, but because he’s always been a very private man, we can only guess if his liver transplant that same year was related to his cancer. (Honestly, it probably was). A month before Jobs’ death, editorial consultant for NPR Mitchell Berger, wrote an essay comparing his own battle with cancer with Jobs’. “I have a NET too (although not in the islet cells of my pancreas) and it spread to my liver,” writes Berger. He suspects the same was true for Jobs’. If you look at the statistics, metastasis is the likely scenario. According to University of Southern California department of surgery, islet cell tumors spread to the liver in up to 50 percent of patients.

Steve Jobs was one of greatest, most prolific inventors of our generation, delivering game changing products like the iPod and iPad while living with cancer for the better part of a decade. Besides inspiring young inventors to carry the torch of technological innovation, Jobs will no doubt draw more attention to pancreatic cancer and perhaps give inspiration to those struggling with it now. That’s a legacy his family and friends can be proud of.

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