Pancreatic cancer community mourns losses

Submitted photo Actress Charlotte Rae in 2014 with West Virginia Advocate Stephanie Santilli of Philippi, 10 years old at the time.

Members and advocates of the pancreatic cancer community have lost two very notable icons within the last month — Charlotte Rae and, most recently, Aretha Franklin.

Charlotte Rae, an actress, comedian, singer, and Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) champion, passed away Aug. 5 at the age of 92. Although a cause of death was not released, she had publicly fought pancreatic cancer since 2009, and was most recently diagnosed with bone cancer.

She was known most notably for her portrayal of Edna Garrett (Mrs. Garrett) in the sitcoms “Diff’rent Strokes” and its spin-off, “The Facts of Life.”

Annette Fetty-Santilli, West Virginia Community Advocate for PanCAN, said, “Charlotte was a cherished champion for the cause. I was so blessed to have met her. I enjoyed going to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. with her. You just knew you were in the presence of greatness. I’m so very sad of her passing.”

Pancreatic cancer was personal to Rae, even before her own diagnosis. She lost three relatives to the disease, including her mother, uncle and older sister. Her extensive family history with pancreatic cancer led her to be more vigilant about the symptoms.

“Keep searching for a solution, explore clinical trials. I’m extremely grateful to be here today and I’m sending out powerful prayers to all of you,” she said in 2016 when asked for what advice she gives other patients fighting the disease.

Rae also said, “This disease is so frightening because it cannot be detected early enough. Effective treatments and early detection tools could save thousands and thousands of lives. We must speak loud and clear: Federal funds must be invested to develop more effective treatments and to find a simple, affordable detection test,” Rae told National PanCAN Advocacy Day participants in 2013.

On Aug. 16, the family of Aretha Franklin confirmed that the 18-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, best known for hits like “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and “Spanish Harlem,” died of pancreatic cancer. She was 76 years old.

Franklin died from a form of pancreatic cancer known as pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, which accounts for about 6 percent of all pancreatic cancer tumors. They develop from abnormal growth of endocrine (hormone-producing) cells in the pancreas called islet cells. This why these tumors are sometimes referred to as “islet cell tumors.”

Fetty-Santilli says, “We mourn the loss of another legend and I urge all West Virginians to take action against pancreatic cancer. PanCAN is working diligently to change outcomes for patients, but we need more people to get involved and help create awareness and to raise funds for critical research.”

Earlier this year, pancreatic cancer claimed the life of Joe Jackson, the patriarch of the Jackson music dynasty.

It’s important to note that African-Americans have the highest incidence rate of pancreatic cancer, between 28 and 59 percent higher than the incidence rates of other racial/ethnic groups.

Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Congressman David McKinley and Congressman Evan Jenkins are all members of the Caucus on the Deadliest Cancers, including pancreatic cancer.

“We are very grateful to these four members of our Congressional Delegation for helping to garner additional resources to fight pancreatic cance,” says Fetty-Santilli.

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate of any major cancer in the United States at only 9 percent. In 2018, more than 55,000 people will be diagnosed and approximately 44,000 will die from the disease.

For more information about pancreatic cancer or the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, persons may refer to www.pancan.org or the Facebook page: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network — West Virginia or contact Annette Fetty Santilli at 304-621-3648 or asantilli@pancanvolunteer.org.

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