By Sara Bondell - September 23, 2022
Actor and comedian Eric Idle, best known for his role in “Monty Python,” calls his pancreatic cancer diagnosis lucky. Unlucky for having the disease, but lucky because it was diagnosed very early.
In a personal essay published in TIME, Idle, 79, opens up about his 2019 diagnosis. The cancer was unintentionally found while running some routine tests with his friend and doctor who specializes in preventive medicine. A blood test raised some red flags that led the doctor to suggest imaging of Idle’s pancreas.
“He and the MRI technician gaze at the ghost of a tumor sitting in the middle of my pancreas,” Idle wrote. “It is intact. It is unattached. But it is undeniable, most probably, the C thing. But this little puppy is fairly new. It hasn’t burst or spread.”
Oncologists told Idle they had never seen someone at such an early stage and were very optimistic.
“Most individuals are either asymptomatic until they present with painless jaundice, or they have several months of unrecognized symptoms of pancreatic cancer including weight loss, new onset or worsening diabetes, diarrhea, pancreatitis or queasiness of the stomach,” said Dr. Pamela Hodul, a gastrointestinal surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center. “These symptoms often lead to patients being misdiagnosed with conditions such as insulin resistant diabetes, irritable bowel disease, gallbladder disease and ulcers.”
Idle had surgery, part of it robotic, and pathology results confirm the tumor was cancerous. The cancer had not spread to any lymph nodes and doctors could not find any trace of more cancer in his body.
“I had been a dead man walking,” Idle said. “I am going to live.”
Hodul says less than 20% of pancreatic cancer cases are caught early enough to be considered for surgery. “Surgery for pancreatic cancer is dependent on the location of the cancer. Cancers in the head of the pancreas require a Whipple procedure, however cancers of the body and tail require distal pancreatectomy and removal of the spleen.”
While Idle did not need any other treatment, Hodul says it is not uncommon for patients with early stage disease to require chemotherapy and radiation prior to surgery.
While Moffitt pancreatic cancer patients who have had surgery have a more than 35% five-year survival rate, there is still no reliable predictor of patient response because it is so dependent on an individual tumor’s biology. This is why it’s so important for pancreatic cancer patients to undergo genetic testing and screening.
More than two years later, Idle says he is feeling good. He accepted an offer to participate on season 8 of “The Masked Singer,” and even though he was eliminated from the competition, he says he was proud of his first performance since his surgery. He is now focused on working with Stand Up To Cancer to help raise funds for pancreatic cancer research and encourage others to focus on their health.
“Please talk to your doctor to understand which screening tests might be right for you and tell your loved ones to do the same,” he said. “Help me help others like me to survive.”