The bad news spread across social media late on a Friday night: Sharon Jones, the Grammy-nominated funk and soul singer who fronted the Dap-Kings for nearly two decades, had lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. In a pair of cruel ironies, Jones passed away during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, the day after World Pancreatic Cancer Day.
First diagnosed with stage two of the lethal cancer in 2013, Jones had extensive surgery to remove part of her pancreas, her gallbladder and 18 inches of her small intestines, and then went into remission. Her reprieve was short-lived, however; the cancer roared back, at stage four, with tumors spreading to her lungs, liver and lymph nodes.
This isn’t unusual, according to Antonio Baines, Ph.D., a cancer pharmacologist at North Carolina Central University. Pancreatic cancer, the third-leading cause of all cancer deaths in the United States “is very deadly because we don’t have any early detection methods. With breast cancer, we have mammograms to detect some types of breast cancer. A lot of times when pancreatic cancer is found, it has already metastasized to other parts of the body,” he said in an interview with Black Health Matters just hours before Jones succumbed to the disease.
Diagnosis is made even more difficult because of a lack of symptoms. Jaundice, extreme itching and weight loss led Jones to see her doctor and to a speedy diagnosis, but according to Baines, pancreatic cancer “is usually found by accident.” That’s because most of the symptoms—loss of appetite, losing weight, some nausea or vomiting—aren’t specific to pancreatic cancer.
Science hasn’t made much progress on the treatment front, either. “We don’t have any good treatments for pancreatic cancer,” Baines said. “Only about 10 percent of patients are eligible for surgery, and unfortunately, in many cases, you have to remove more than just the pancreas. It’s a very invasive surgery, sometimes calling for removal of a portion of the stomach and a portion of the small intestines, too.”
And largely ineffective chemotherapy—most of which may prolong life only six months to a year—adds to the challenges presented by this form of cancer. This triple cocktail of late detection, few symptoms and poor treatment methods has the five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer hovering around 8 percent, placing it among the lowest survival rates of all cancers.
This is where Baines comes in. In conjunction with colleagues at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Baines has focused his career on fighting pancreatic cancer—finding drugs that will slow down cancer cell growth or increase cancer cell death.
“Progress has been made,” he said. “The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network—PanCAN—has brought a lot of attention to this disease. They are a strong advocacy group. But a lot more needs to be done for research funding and to bring people to clinical trials.”
This is especially true for African Americans, like Jones, who have a 50 percent to 90 percent higher likelihood of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than their white counterparts, but who are rarely part of clinical trials.
“It’s unfortunate,” Baines said, “because we’re finding out with health disparities that cancer is different with different ethnicities. Clinical trials help push the field and help find better treatment. If a clinical trial is not diverse, the benefits you see may not be for everybody.”