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Sally Ride dies of pancreatic cancer: What is pancreatic cancer?

July 24, 2012|By Nika Soon-Shiong | Los Angeles Times
  • Sally Ride is one of an estimated 37,390 people who will die of pancreatic cancer in the U.S. this year.
Sally Ride is one of an estimated 37,390 people who will die of pancreatic… (NASA )

Pancreatic cancer, the most aggressive type of cancer, has claimed the life of astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Ride died Monday at age of 61 after a 17-month-long battle against the disease.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths for people in the United States. It has the lowest survival rate of any type of cancer — according to the American Cancer Society, the one-year survival rate is 20% for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined. The five-year survival rate is only 6%, and that figure has remained in the single digits for more than 40 years.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2012, about 43,920 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. and roughly 37,390 people will die of the disease.

Several of Ride’s former colleagues at NASA and UC San Diego, where she was a physics professor, said they didn’t even know that Ride was ill. For many pancreatic cancer patients, the rapid decline in health is an unfortunate pattern.

Pancreatic cancer begins in the pancreas, an organ that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. More than 90% of pancreatic cancer tumors have a mutation in a gene called KRAS, according to this explainer from Johns Hopkins University.

The KRAS gene contains instructions for making a protein that’s important in regulating cell division, according to the National Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference. But if KRAS acquired certain mutations, the growth-promoting signals can’t be turned off, ultimately causing tumors to form. Then those cells spread through the bloodstream and colonize other organs in the body. This stage is known as metastasis.

Patients are usually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only after it has spread throughout the body, when it’s extremely difficult to fight. The disease is rarely detected in its earliest stages because the symptoms are difficult to recognize.

By far, the most common form of pancreatic cancer is known as adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, which affects the cells that manufacture enzymes in the pancreas. These cells are surrounded by a tough, fibrous coat, which renders the microenvironment of the cancer cell impervious to intravenously injected chemotherapy.

Studies are underway to develop therapies that target the faulty protein and stop its out-of-control signaling. It would also be helpful to find ways to detect the cancer in its earliest stages, when it is still contained to the pancreas and could be surgically removed.

Patients with pancreatic cancer can also be treated with chemotherapy, radiation and drugs designed to interfere with the tumor’s growth, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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