BUCKHANNON – November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and the U.S. in 2020 has suffered the loss of many well-known and not-so-well-known people to this disease including Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis in July, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, MLB Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in October and most recently, longtime Jeopardy host Alex Trebek in November.
Pancreatic cancer has also claimed the lives of actors Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon, Apple Founder Steve Jobs and singer Aretha Franklin.
In a pre-taped episode of the game show “Jeopardy,” host Alex Trebek on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, opened the show by recognizing it was World Pancreatic Cancer Day and urged his audience to be aware of the symptoms and to get tested if they show signs and symptoms.
Trebek had shared his personal experience and said he wished he had known about his cancer sooner, saying some of the symptoms include stomach pain, mid-back pain, unexplained weight loss, new-onset diabetes and yellowing of the skin or eyes.
Locally, Annette Fetty-Santilli, West Virginia Community Partner and National Volunteer Advisory Committee Member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, said she has served as an advocate for pancreatic cancer awareness since Oct. 4, 2007 – the day her younger brother, who was 38 years old, passed away from pancreatic cancer. She said he was diagnosed 18 months earlier, but until that point, she basically knew nothing about the disease.
“Jim Fetty was only 36 when he received his diagnosis,” Fetty-Santilli said. “It seems like pancreatic cancer is showing up in younger and younger people. Unfortunately, by the time it is diagnosed, it has usually metastasized to the liver or other organs.”
One reason pancreatic cancer is so apt to spread before being diagnosed is there is no early screening for pancreatic cancer. Fetty-Santilli said since she has been volunteering, the five-year survival rate has increased from 5 percent to 10 percent.
“This is huge, but it’s not huge,” she said. “Pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate of all the major cancers.”
Fetty-Santilli said U.S. Congress passed a bill to create a fund and allocated $6 million to study pancreatic cancer.
“This year, we asked for $10 million and not only did the House pass the funding, they passed it at the level of $15 million,” she said. “That was right after Congressman John Lewis passed away from pancreatic cancer. Hopefully, the Senate will pass that as well.”
She said typically, West Virginia legislators have been supportive of efforts to fund pancreatic cancer research as well.
“Congressman David McKinley is one of the champions for pancreatic cancer research as well,” Fetty-Santilli said. “West Virginia Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin have been supportive, too. All three of them are members of the caucus on the deadliest cancers.”
Fetty-Santilli said everyone can help in the fight for pancreatic cancer awareness.
“You can make a contribution to PANCAN – the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – which funds a lot of cancer research,” she said. “The one thing we really want people to do is recognize the signs and symptoms; if you see things happen in your own body, go see your physician. Know your own body and know what is right.”
“The idea is that if we can get it diagnosed earlier, there is a better rate of survival,” Fetty-Santilli added. “Symptoms include weight loss, yellowing of the skin and eyes, and back pain. Folks with a family history of the disease, those who have had chronic or hereditary pancreatitis or those who smoke or are overweight could be at higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer. Also, those with long-term diabetes are a higher risk for pancreatic cancer.”
She said people who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer may call PANCAN’s patient central at 877-272-6226 and the goal is to hook patients up with clinical trials that might be able to help them.
“My daughter is 16 years old and was three years old when her uncle passed away,” she said. “I want her to live in a world where there is no pancreatic cancer. That is my mission, and I try to honor my brother’s memory. I looked at him on his last day and he told me no one should have to suffer like this.”
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Network, more than 57,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. Additional information about the Pancreatic Cancer Network is available at www.pancan.org.