Aretha Franklin and Pancreatic Cancer: What You Should Know

Aretha Franklin's death last Thursday has been confirmed to be the result of pancreatic cancer. The "Queen of Soul" was 76-years-old. She was being treated by oncologist Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute. The singer dropped to a skeletal 86 pounds in the time leading up to her death. She had been very private about her diagnosis, refusing to confirm the rumors that she had cancer. She canceled many recent tours for undisclosed health problems and announced her retirement last year.

As the world mourns the loss of this irreplaceable vocal legend, researchers and doctors are hopeful that Franklin's death will increase pancreatic cancer awareness and research funding. This often overlooked disease has only an 8 percent five-year survival rate. Breast cancer, on the other hand, has a 90 percent survival rate over five years. Pancreatic cancer's low survival rate is partially due to its often late diagnosis. Since the pancreas is located deep inside the body, physicians can't feel them during regular physical exams. Additionally, by the time most people report symptoms, the cancer is already too advanced.

There are two types of pancreatic cancers: exocrine and endocrine. Exocrine pancreatic cancer makes up 95 percent of all pancreatic cancer cases. Doctors diagnosed Franklin with the less common neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 55,4000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year, with 44,300 people expected to die from it in 2018. Dr. Diane Simeon of NYU Langone Health reported that that "Pancreatic cancer is projected to become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States by 2020." There is currently no early screening option for pancreatic cancer the way there is for breast cancer and colon cancer.

Risk Factors

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Certain factors can put you at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer. These include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Genetics including gene mutations like BRCA1, BRCA2, PRSS1 genes
  • Male
  • African-American
  • Over the age of 65

Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms

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Pancreatic cancer symptoms can be vague and lead to other diagnoses at first. Keep an eye out for these symptoms, particularly if you are at higher risk, and be certain to discuss your concerns with your medical provider.

  • Gradually worsening abdominal pain which may radiate to your lower back
  • Significant unintended weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Poor appetite
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas pains, belching, and steatorrhea – fatty stools (since the pancreas helps to digest fat) that may be pale and appear oily
  • Sudden onset of diabetes without risk factors (the pancreas produces insulin)
  • Jaundice – a yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes – at this point, the cancer has likely already spread to your liver
  • Unexplained blood clots

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  • While there is no definitive way to prevent pancreatic cancer, there are some things that you can do to lower your risk.
  • Don't smoke cigarettes.
  • Engage in regular physical activity.
  • Eat a healthy diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.

The Future of Pancreatic Cancer Research

The FDA approved two drugs in 2011 that can help with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, though each is with significant risks. Researchers have several goals when it comes to pancreatic cancer. One is to develop a simple screening tool such as a urine or blood test that could lead to early detection of the disease. Better and more effective treatments are also important, including immune therapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.