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Jobs' fight against pancreatic cancer was 'admirable'

One medical expert who suspects Jobs may have succumbed to the cancer he fought for seven years says he was amazed to see Jobs up and around after his liver transplant.

While Steve Jobs' family hasn't disclosed what caused his death, doctors suspect that he had a recurrence of his cancer.
James Martin/CNET

Steve Jobs was a billionaire, a famous problem solver, and according to one medical expert familiar with the form of cancer he suffered from, a man who fought an "admirable" battle against the disease.

"(A liver transplant) is a huge operation involving a major organ. I was amazed to see him up around. --Tanios Bekaii-Saab, doctor

If anyone was equipped with the resources to mount a serious fight against cancer it was the Apple co-founder. Nonetheless, Jobs lost his battle yesterday when he passed away at the age of 56.

His family has not disclosed the cause of death but medical experts have long speculated about what might have occurred based on what Jobs revealed about his health in recent years.

Jobs acknowledged that he suffered from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, or islet cell carcinoma since 2004. This is a rare and less aggressive form of pancreatic cancer than some. In the years following, Jobs underwent a series of aggressive treatments, including a liver transplant--which is controversial for islet cancer because it hasn't been proven to benefit the patient, according to Tanios Bekaii-Saab, medical director for the gastrointestinal oncology division at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Bekaii-Saab told CNET that a liver transplant is a very serious and often life-altering surgery.

"This is a huge operation involving a major organ," said Bekaii-Saab. "I was amazed to see him up around and doing what he was doing. This is very major surgery and being on all these medications and going through all these procedures required, I couldn't believe it to see him on stage being the genius he was. We see these cases all the time. They take a huge toll on patients, mentally and physically. I was amazed to see him up and around. It was admirable."

Since Bekaii-Saab did not treat Jobs it's hard to say for sure what happened. If the cancer had not spread, then his new liver may have failed or there might have been complications due to the drugs he likely took to prevent organ rejection, or some combination of these, according to Bekaii-Saab.

"My assumption is there was more than one factor working," he said.

In a now well-known commencement speech he gave at Stanford University, Jobs said that he caught a break by getting a less aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. The more common forms of pancreatic cancer can kill within a few months. With islet cancer, a patient typically lives about seven or eight years on average, but in some cases can live as long as 20 years, Bekaii-Saab said.

Some doctors said they feared the worst when it was obvious Jobs continued to lose weight and then when he stepped down as CEO in August. Islet is known for coming back. Zev Wainberg, a gastrointestinal oncologist with UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, who had never treated Jobs, told USA Today after Jobs moved into the chairman's job that "I suspect we will not be talking about years" of additional survival.

Bekaii-Saab said people diagnosed with islet face one significant disadvantage. Because their disease is rare, only a small amount of money, when compared to other forms of cancer, is dedicated to research. But he also said treatment has improved even since 2004, the year Jobs was diagnosed.

"There are a lot of new medications coming through," Bekaii-Saab said. "We have a couple of agents in clinics right now. There are a lot medications that will help and some innovative approaches in terms (non-surgical methods) and radiation that attack areas of the liver without the need for transplant. There is no cure but there's been progress."

The cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown.