View Libby Znaimer

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY LIBBY ZNAIMER Libby Znaimer ( libby@zoomer.ca) is VP of news on AM740 and Clas­si­cal 96.3 FM (ZoomerMe­dia prop­er­ties).

IT HIT VERY CLOSE to home for a celebrity death. That’s be­cause of re­ports that the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died of pan­cre­atic cancer, a dis­ease I have been lucky enough to sur­vive for a decade. It’s the dead­li­est form of cancer – the only one with a sur­vival rate still in the sin­gle dig­its. At first, it seemed there was a sil­ver lin­ing to Aretha’s jour­ney. Her ill­ness first hit the head­lines in De­cem­ber 2010. That meant she lived with her cancer for more than seven years while most peo­ple die within a year of di­ag­no­sis. But it turned out she had a malig­nant neu­roen­docrine pan­cre­atic tu­mour. Same or­gan – but a very dif­fer­ent dis­ease.

There are many dif­fer­ent forms of this neu­roen­docrine cancer, and lengthy sur­vival is not un­usual. “There isn’t re­ally a pre­dictable tra­jec­tory for this dis­ease,” says Dr. Steven Gallinger, head of the hepa­to­bil­iary/pan­cre­atic sur­gi­cal on­col­ogy pro­gram at the Uni­ver­sity Health Net­work and a lead­ing pan­cre­atic cancer re­searcher. “It ranges from rapidly fa­tal to al­most a chronic dis­ease over 10, 20, 30 years.” It is also much more rare than pan­cre­atic ade­no­car­ci­noma – what we call pan­cre­atic cancer, which is in­creas­ing in fre­quency and on track to be­come the sec­ond largest cause of death from cancer by 2020.

Doctors are see­ing more pan­cre­atic cancer be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing – getting older is a ma­jor risk fac­tor – it means pa­tients are not dying of some­thing else first. And it is caus­ing a larger pro­por­tion of fa­tal­i­ties be­cause the death rates for other forms of cancer are fall- ing. “For the big cancer killers such as breast and colon, and even lung cancer, cure rates are im­prov­ing,” says Gallinger.

The sur­vival rate for pan­cre­atic cancer is im­prov­ing, too. It’s gone from five per cent when I was di­ag­nosed in 2008 to nine per cent to­day. That’s nearly a dou­bling. But to put it in per­spec­tive, it means that out of 100 peo­ple who found they have the dis­ease in 2018, only nine will be alive in five years. This is why the very men­tion of the words “pan­cre­atic cancer” usu­ally makes peo­ple gasp in hor­ror. It’s prob­a­bly why Aretha re­acted to her news the way she did.

Although it was re­ported widely eight years ago, she ve­he­mently de­nied that she had pan­cre­atic cancer. Back then, I did not be­lieve her. And to be hon­est, the de­nial an­gered me. When a celebrity is stricken with a dis­ease, it creates a huge op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate aware­ness and raise funds. It ran­kled that such a beloved fig­ure chose not to. But the fact of her sur­vival over this pe­riod of years made me re­think that judg­ment. I re­al­ized that she had been telling the truth and that I had been both mis­taken and harsh. Pan­cre­atic cancer, how­ever, is seen as a death sen­tence, so it’s un­der­stand­able why many peo­ple want to keep that news to them­selves. “It was prob­a­bly a wise de­ci­sion,” says rocker and ZoomerRa­dio host Rob­bie Lane on why the si­lence. “She knew the busi­ness and she knew that once that was an­nounced promoters would not be book­ing her.” In fact, Franklin had lim­ited con­cert dates planned into the fu­ture.

That view of the dis­ease is also a real prob­lem when it comes to ad­vo­cacy. “It’s one of the chal­lenges we face that or­ga­ni­za­tions like breast cancer groups were able to over­come as there were more sur­vivors and more peo­ple will­ing to talk about it,” says Michelle Capo­bianco, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Pan­cre­atic Cancer Canada.

Gallinger sees noth­ing to crow about in the al­most dou­bling of the sur­vival rate in the last decade, which he refers to as a “slight im­prove­ment.” He be­lieves it’s the re­sult of safer surgery and bet­ter use of ex­ist­ing drugs. “I don’t think we’re go­ing to get much higher un­less there’s a ma­jor break­through, and that’s go­ing to come through re­search,” he says. For the pa­tients he sees, the jour­ney is usu­ally dra-

“It’s the only cancer with a sur­vival rate still in the sin­gle dig­its”

mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent from Aretha Franklin’s. “It’s of­ten com­pared to a car ac­ci­dent,” Capo­bianco says. “It hap­pens so fast. From the time of di­ag­no­sis to death, it’s of­ten a 12-week pe­riod. It’s dev­as­tat­ing for those left be­hind. It’s im­por­tant that we come to­gether to stop this.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, go to pan­cre­at­ic­cancer­canada.ca.

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