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North Korea's Kim Jong-il not likely to survive much longer if pancreatic cancer reports are true

Kim Jong-il, the eccentric 67 year-old North Korean tyrant who has lived a life of excess as his people starved, is reportedly suffering from pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is the long, tapered organ best known for producing insulin to regulate blood sugar, but it also creates enzymes that help people break down proteins and fats.

Rumors have long been circulating about Kim’s poor health, including a report last year that the government went as far as to fake photos to demonstrate the leader’s vitality.  Last night, the South Korean Network YTN reported that intelligence officials in Seoul and Beijing determined that the self-proclaimed “Dear Leader” has cancer.  So far, South Korea’s spy agency has not confirmed the report.

Kim was reportedly diagnosed 12 months ago at the same time he suffered a stroke, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports. And at a recent public event in Pyongyang, he was said to appear gaunt and weak.

If the reports are true, Gerard Blobe, an oncologist at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who specializes in colon and pancreatic cancers, says that Kim’s prognosis is not good.

“Pretty much everyone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ends up dying,” he says. Pancreatic cancer kills nearly 30,000 patients per year in the U.S., making it the fourth leading cause of death.

Doctors diagnose the disease through a CT scan or an endoscopic ultrasound, but it is rarely caught in its early, more treatable stage. When they do catch it early, a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery allows patients to live an average of 16 to 18 months, Blobe says.

But in 90 percent of pancreatic cancer cases, the tumor has already spread to organs such as the liver. If Kim already looks weak, Blobe says, the cancer has probably already metastasized. “With state-of-the-art chemo, if he has metastatic disease he might make it eight or nine months.”

For more information on what makes pancreatic cancer so deadly, read our Ask the Experts from last year.

Image of Kim Jong-Il from xiaojiecha via Flickr

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