Ask Dr. Nandi: Aretha Franklin – What is pancreatic cancer and how you can prevent it?

Yesterday the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin passed away and we learned her death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type.

Question: What is pancreatic cancer? 

Pancreatic cancer is one of the diseases I treat in my practice and I can tell you firsthand how devastating this cancer can be.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking to tell patients they have it and it’s extremely distressing for them when they hear it.  And that’s because the mortality rate is so high, at 95 percent.  Now this cancer starts in the pancreas tissues when cells develop mutations.  This makes them grow uncontrollably which can then form into a tumor.  Now most people get pancreatic adenocarcinoma, but the type Aretha Franklinhad is pretty rare.  Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are found in roughly 6% of pancreatic cases.  And this type can form in the hormone-producing cells in the pancreas.  

Question:  How is it diagnosed and what can we do to prevent it?  

I received quite a few questions asking if there is a blood test for it.  Unfortunate, there are none.  If pancreatic cancer is suspected, you will likely have imaging tests, ultrasounds and tissue samples taken.  Now the best way to prevent pancreatic cancer is by controlling or avoiding the health risks.   And those are smoking, obesity, diabetes, and pancreatitis which is chronic inflammation of the pancreas.  

Question: Aretha Franklin was known for being very private but there were reports she might have had this since 2010.  Would that length of time be unusual?

If Aretha had pancreatic cancer since 2010, then yes this is very unusual.  The five-year survival rate for the rare type she had can be anywhere from 50% to 80%.  Compare that to the more common adenocarcinoma, which is less than 5%.  That’s because neuroendocrine tumors are slow-growing and can take years to spread.  What we really need is a lot more research when it comes to pancreatic cancer.  And it’s also really important if you or a loved one ever get this to not give up hope, and to find an expert as they can give you the best chance of survival.  And lastly, the key to avoiding cancer in general is to eat a healthy diet, limiting junk food and processed foods, quit smoking, exercise and maintain a healthy weight.

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