Aretha Franklin: Let's Not Lose Another Legend to Pancreatic Cancer

By Valentina Dalili-Shoaie, M.D.

Categories: Featured News , Cancer
September 16, 2018

While the world mourned the death of singing legend Aretha Franklin last month, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this tremendous loss could have been avoided. The Queen of Soul battled pancreatic cancer, a ruthless killer known for developing without symptoms until it is too advanced to treat.

But the picture of pancreatic cancer is changing. It is my deepest hope that we get the upper hand on pancreatic cancer, that we stop it from taking our legends before they’re ready to go. I believe new detection techniques will allow us to do just that.

We often talk about being blindsided by pancreatic cancer. Unlike other cancers, it kills nearly as many people each year who develop the disease, with the majority of people dying within the first eight months of detection. But the truth is, risk factors present warning signs. If we identify people with strong family histories or other risk factors early enough, we can monitor these high-risk people and catch tumors while they are still treatable.

For example, as someone who battled diabetes, Franklin was at increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. Nearly 10 percent of pancreatic cancers are hereditary. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking and diabetes. I was not her doctor, and I don’t know if Franklin had other risk factors. But for patients at Hoag’s Anita Erickson Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Program whose medical histories raise red flags, we offer aggressive surveillance in hopes of finding cancer early enough for treatment.

Our team of geneticists, genetic counselors, gastroenterologists, GI surgeons and a clinical nurse navigator work together to detect early stage pancreatic cancer through labs, imaging and diagnostic testing, as well as genetic counseling and testing.

To participate in the program, patients submit their de-identified information to a registry, shared by similar organizations in the nation. This database will help future clinicians to better understand this complex disease and how to effectively treat and manage it.

By proactively monitoring higher risk patients, we can detect cancer at an early stage, surgically remove the tumors and increase survival rates. Surveillance and early detection is a new frontier for us, but with pancreatic cancer on the rise, it is an issue that cannot be ignored.

Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian is one of the first hospitals in the nation to create a program targeted at finding pancreatic cancer early, when it might still be treatable. Because medicine has evolved to allow us to take genetic information and family history to determine who to test and how to test them, I expect many other hospitals will soon follow suit.

We lost a legend. It is my hope to live in a world in which we can stop pancreatic cancer from claiming another legend – or mother, father, sister or friend. The warning signs are there. Let’s pay attention and turn the tables on this insidious killer.

Valentina Dalili-Shoaie, M.D., is a medical geneticist and a physician leader for Anita Erickson Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Program at Hoag.