MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - The passing of Steve Jobs has brought pancreatic cancer to the forefront but for people living with the disease, the battle has always been ongoing.
Joan Exline is the Associate Vice President at the University of South Alabama. She is responsible for maintaining the university's accreditation. Exline was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July, 2011. Like most people who hear the words "you have cancer," she remembers the day well.
"Oh, very clearly. He said, 'We think that you have pancreatic cancer,' and it was quite a shock," Exline recalled.
Exline had no family history of pancreatic cancer but kept experiencing stomach pains. She went in for a check up and that's when the cancer was discovered. She said her first reaction was denial. Now, she sees the disease as a battle that she has no intention of losing.
There has been a considerable amount of research indicating that positive thinking makes a significant difference on cancer patients' survival rates. Exline agrees and maintains her faith by visualizing a game of Pacman during her chemotherapy treatments.
"Pacman is eating the cancer cells while I have chemo," Exline explains.
Early detection and treatment are key to surviving pancreatic cancer, but finding it is easier said than done. Dr. William Taylor, Mitchell Cancer Institute Oncologist, said the reason is that it doesn't present itself like other illnesses.
"It's not like skin cancer where you can see it or breast cancer where you can feel a lump. It's deep in the stomach, so it gives it a considerable amount of time to grow before it really causes symptoms or any other problems."
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms & Signs:
- Stomach pain
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
Doctors say currently, surgery is the only curative treatment for pancreatic cancer, but only 20 percent of people are eligible. Researchers at the Mitchell Cancer Institute are looking for better solutions.
"We are not just focusing on the cancer cells but also the environment around the cells ... We are trying to understand how the tumor cells become tumor cells and what is the function and consequence of that interaction," said Dr. Ajay Singh.
The hope is to find out how the cancer functions and what makes it so aggressive so doctors can better tailor therapy medicine for patients. Cancer is very smart. Dr. Singh says he has to be smarter. It's a race against a clock.
Meanwhile, Joan continues her treatment, a combination therapy of radiation and chemotherapy. She hasn't missed a day of work and maintains a positive attitude. Exline said she prefers to take a page from Steve Jobs, who worked as the CEO of Apple until the very end, despite his cancer.
"The lesson that he taught me is that while you are alive, contribute and make everyday count, and that's what I am trying to do here," she said.
The life expectancy of a pancreatic cancer patient is normally eight months or less. The next phase planned in Dr. Singh's research is clinical trials with animals, then people. It's a long process. Cancer is not simple. The results won't be known for 10-15 years.
To learn more about the Mitchell Cancer Institute, click here .
For more general information on pancreatic cancer click here .
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