Take Charge

Aretha Franklin Died of a Deadly Cancer That Gets Little Attention

August 20, 2018

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By Ann Miller Baker

Aretha Franklin, the beloved “Queen of Soul,” died last Thursday at age 76 from advanced pancreatic cancer.

But not all pancreatic tumors are the same, says Jonathan Strosberg, MD, leader of the Neuroendocrine Tumor Division at Moffitt Cancer Center and author of more than 100 related journal articles. The differences not only determine how they’re treated and how many new treatment options are available, but also how long the patient might be able to live with the disease.

Pancreatic tumors fall into two categories. The most common, called adenocarcinomas, usually begin in cells that are responsible for manufacturing enzymes to help us digest food.  A more rare form develops in islet cells that produce a variety of hormones used throughout the body. These pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors – or NETs – represent only six percent of all cancers found in the pancreas. Both Franklin and Jobs survived years with pancreatic NETs that eventually spread to other parts of the body.

“Pancreatic NETs are usually much less aggressive tumors than the common type of pancreatic cancer,” says Dr. Strosberg, “and they are treated completely differently. In fact, there has been a large expansion in treatment options for these rare tumors.”

Hormones called somatostatin analogs are often used as first line therapy against pancreatic NETs that have spread to other parts of the body. Progress is also being made with new drugs like  everolimus, a drug that blocks an intracellular enzyme, and sunitinib, which slows new blood vessel growth to cancer cells.

Moffitt has been at the forefront of developing new options.  It published the first clinical data on a two-drug chemotherapy regimen that showed exceptional activity against pancreatic NETs. Those findings led to a randomized multicenter clinical trial that demonstrated significant improvement in patient survival.

Dr. Strosberg also led an international clinical trial of drug called Lutathera® which was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administation for pancreatic NETs and other neuroendocrine malignancies. It’s a first-of-its-kind cancer treatment that carries a radioactive component directly to targeted tumor cells.

With the availability of these cutting-edge treatments and expertise of physicians like Dr. Strosberg, Moffitt has become one of the leading international programs for treating patients with neuroendocrine tumors.