Queen of Soul’s Passing Sheds Light on Pancreatic Cancer

By Sara Bondell - August 16, 2018

As the world mourns the passing of the undisputed “Queen of Soul”, there can be no doubt that Aretha Franklin’s legacy will endure – in music and beyond. She once referred to her signature song, “Respect,” as a “battle cry for freedom,” as it inspired civil rights and women’s rights movements of the time.

But her death also brings attention to a condition much feared and little understood. The singer’s publicist has confirmed that Franklin’s official cause of death was advanced pancreatic cancer.  

According to the American Cancer Society, about 55,440 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. Only about 11,000 are expected to survive, giving pancreatic cancer the lowest five-year survival rate of any cancer. It’s not clear what causes pancreatic cancer in most cases and it is hard to diagnose in early stages. But it’s a diagnosis familiar to experts in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center

“We have a good multidisciplinary approach at Moffitt,” says medical oncologist Dr. Estrella Carballido. “All of the different aspects of treatment can be overwhelming for patients, so we try to work together to meet all their needs, from nutrition to pain management, at once.”

Only about 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are eligible for surgery at the time of diagnosis because most patients have advanced cases. Moffitt is one of the highest volume centers in the United States treating the disease, performing about 100 surgeries annually.

If surgery isn’t an option, a patient can be treated with chemotherapy, radiation or a combination. Chemotherapy can be challenging with many side effects and patients may require more attention and follow-up appointments than those fighting other types of cancer.

But pancreatic cancer’s most insidious feature may be its lack of clear warning signs.

Nine Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms You Should Not Ignore

Noticeable symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don’t appear when the cancer is in its early stages, making it difficult to diagnose. Because of this, it is especially important to be aware of the possible symptoms pancreatic cancer can cause. Be mindful of what is normal for you and your body, and promptly report any new or unusual symptoms to a physician.

Here are some symptoms that often help physicians arrive at a pancreatic cancer diagnosis:

  • Pain in the abdomen and back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Changes in stools (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Enlargement of the gallbladder
  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, loss of appetite and other digestive difficulties

In advanced stages, patients with pancreatic cancer may also experience:

  • Blood clots that form in the deep veins (deep vein thrombosis)
  • A swollen or distended abdomen caused by a buildup of fluid

It’s important to remember that having one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have pancreatic cancer. There are a number of other conditions that can cause them, and only a medical professional can provide you with an accurate diagnosis. If you are experiencing these symptoms, follow up with your physician as quickly as you can.

Moffitt has a top-notch team fighting pancreatic cancer, and women are at the helm. The Gastrointestinal Oncology Clinic boasts eight women who focus on the disease. As of this post, the GI clinic is the only one at Moffitt that has a woman leading in every aspect of care: research, pathology, medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgery.

“Pancreatic cancer is nonbiased, affecting young and old, women and men,” says Dr. Pamela Hodul, who performs about 50 pancreatic surgeries a year. “So it’s by chance we all happen to be female sharing the same passion for the prevention, treatment and cure of pancreatic cancer.”

One can only imagine that is something the late Queen of Soul would have appreciated.

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