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Respecting Aretha Franklin, Increasing Awareness of Pancreatic Cancer

August 17, 2018

She was known as the “Queen of Soul.” Aretha Franklin’s soulful, four-octave voice soothed, galvanized and most of all, captivated. And when she died Aug. 16, 2018, at the age of 76, fans around the world paid tribute, even though few knew what had caused her death.

Aretha Franklin at Barack Obama InaugurationMusicians from all genres praised her voice, style and artistry that resulted in 44 Grammy nominations and 18 wins as well as being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Politicians highlighted her music’s ability to define the American experience, promoting feminism and civil rights through songs such as “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

For more than 50 years, her music reflected our times and history. Recently, ill health kept her from the spotlight. She lost weight. She cancelled concerts, but, as was her right, did not talk about her illness. Upon her death, her publicist disclosed the cause: advanced pancreatic cancer.

While we don’t know the details about Aretha’s particular circumstances, her illness and death are raising questions about pancreatic cancer, which accounts for 3 percent of cancers in the United States, yet causes 7 percent of all deaths.

About Pancreatic Cancer

The pancreas is a 4.7- to 7.1-inch organ, tucked behind the abdomen near the spine. It helps your body digest food and regulate blood sugar. Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in the pancreas begin to grow abnormally, forming tumors. The exocrine and endocrine cells can both form tumors. Neuroendocrine tumors, which Aretha had, are extremely rare, and make up just 5 percent of all pancreatic cancers.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect. Typical symptoms — such as abdominal or back pain, unexplained blood clots, weight loss, lack of appetite, and nausea and diarrhea — can be attributed to many illnesses, which makes it challenging to narrow the cause down to the pancreas. In some cases, it’s not until the cancer begins to affect other organs (such as when a patient becomes jaundiced as cancer starts to affect the liver) that it is diagnosed.

Unfortunately, there is no general screening process available for pancreatic cancer as there is for breast cancer or colon cancer. Some genetic tests may be available for those who are at increased risk because of a family history of pancreatic or related cancers.

As with most cancers, the earlier pancreatic cancer is diagnosed, the more positive the outcome. Treatments may include chemotherapy, surgery, ablation (destroying the tumors), drug therapy and pain management medication, or a combination of these. Research into diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer continues with the goal of increasing options and survival rates.

Minimizing Risk Factors

The American Cancer Society outlines multiple factors that can increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer:

  • Smoking— One of the most definitive risk factors for pancreatic cancer, whether cigarettes, cigars, pipes or smokeless tobacco are used. Smokers have double the chance of getting pancreatic cancer.
  • Obesity and being overweight— Those who are obese are 20 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer.
  • Exposure to workplace chemicals—Chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal industries can increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • Age—The vast majority of patients are over 45 years old, and most are at least 65.
  • Gender—Men are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women, possibly because more men than women smoke.
  • Race—African Americans have a slightly higher risk than Caucasians, perhaps due to additional risk factors such as diabetes and obesity.
  • Family history—Most who develop pancreatic cancer don’t have a family history, but it can run in some families due to inherited gene mutations.
  • Diabetes—Scientists don’t know why but those with type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Sadly, Aretha Franklin had multiple risk factors, including age, race, weight and a history of smoking. Some factors were controllable, and others were not.

While we mourn her loss and celebrate her life, the Queen of Soul leaves behind another legacy beyond her chart-topping music — increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer and how we can each minimize our own risks.

Understand Pancreatic Cancer

Cancer of the pancreas is a disease that is difficult to detect and treat, and it also may be challenging to understand at times. At the Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center Pancreatic Cancer Center we offer you every advantage available using the most advanced diagnostics, treatments, and research to help you understand your disease, its treatment, and your outlook.

Learn More