Aretha Franklin’s Death Puts Spotlight on Pancreatic Cancer


Expert Pitch

Experts available to discuss cancer’s risk factors, symptoms, treatments and the importance of hospice care

CHICAGO --- The death Thursday morning of the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, is a reminder of how quickly pancreatic cancer can spread, Northwestern Medicine oncologists say. Two experts are available to talk about pancreatic cancer and hospice care.

Dr. Mary Mulcahy is a professor of hemotology and oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Northwestern Medicine. She can speak about pancreatic cancer’s symptoms and treatments as well as Aretha Franklin’s decision to enter hospice care. Mulcahy is available by phone at 312-203-0962 or by e-mail at mmulcahy@nm.org.

Quotes from Dr. Mulcahy:

“Pancreatic cancer, even when it’s small, is just one of those cancers that tend to spread,” said Mulcahy, also a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “Only 20 percent are diagnosed early enough to be able to have an operation. And of those who have an operation, only 30 percent are cured of the disease.

“Pancreatic cancer is notorious for signaling weight loss. The tumor cell secretes a cell-signaling protein -- cachexin -- that causes profound weight loss. It’s not isolated to pancreatic cancer but this type of cancer is notorious for that.”

Mulcahy said Franklin’s decision to utilize hospice care should open the door to discussion of hospice’s role.

“I think Aretha Franklin’s decision to enter hospice care can hopefully be a good platform for educating people on what hospice care is. People don’t like the word, ‘hospice’ because it has the connotation of, ‘I’m going to die.’

“But hospice helps people that are dying of a disease have the best quality of life for as long as they’re going to live. The goal of their care is to bring comfort and peace and to help the patient and their family cope with the loss of life.”

Dr. Ryan Merkow is an assistant professor of surgery at Feinberg and a surgical oncologist at Northwestern Medicine, who can speak about the disease’s risk factors and symptoms, how many people it impacts in the U.S., its lack of warning signs, how it’s treated and more. He is available by phone at 312-503-3762 or by e-mail at ryan.merkow@northwestern.edu.

Quotes from Dr. Merkow:

“This is a complex disease that requires the coordinated efforts of an expert multidisciplinary cancer team. Unfortunately, there is no single early warning sign, and no screening tool currently exists.”

Merkow, also a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, said symptoms of pancreatic cancer include weight loss, jaundice, pain, changes in the characteristics of stool and other non-specific gastrointestinal findings.In 2018, more than 55,000 patients in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and approximately 43,000 will die from it, he said. It is the fourth most common cause of death related to cancer in the U.S. in both men and women.

Risks factors for pancreatic cancer include cigarette smoking as well as many other environmental exposures, Merkow said. In approximately 10 percent of people diagnosed with the disease, there is a familial or hereditary component. 

Merkow added that there are several types of cancers that can arise in from the pancreas, however, by far the most common is ductal adenocarcinoma which makes up about 90 percent of cases. Pancreatic cancer can be categorized in three broad groups. Localized, localized but involving critical other structures in the region of the pancreas and metastatic.

Treatment for pancreatic cancer, Merkow said, depends on the broad categories listed above, as well as several important details of the tumor and health status of the patient. Treatment usually includes chemotherapy, sometimes radiation and surgery if the tumor can be completely removed. The type of surgery depends on the location of the cancer.

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