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Aretha Franklin’s Cancer Explained

Doctor stands at CT simulator
Scott Pohl
Dr. Nathan Jones stands next to a CT simulator at Sparrow Hospital's Herbert-Herman Cancer Center.

Aretha Franklin’s private funeral will be held on Friday in Detroit. Her death reportedly was caused by neuroendocrine tumors of the pancreas. Attacking endocrin cells, it differs from the pancreatic cancer attacking exocrine cells that people tend to think leads to a swift death. In fact, Franklin lived with the condition for a number of years.

At the Herbert-Herman Cancer Center at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital, Dr. Nathan Jones explains that neuroendocrine cancers are rare, only about two percent of pancreatic cancer cases, so the causes are not as well known or recognized. “It appears there is probably a smoking linkage,” explains Dr. Jones. “There probably is a high fat diet linkage. There potentially is a linkage with chronic pancreatitis, which may have a high alcohol intake linkage.”

He adds that there are certain genetic predispositions.


Often, there are no early symptoms, and that make it hard to find pancreatic cancer early.

In advanced cases, growth leads to bile duct blockages, problems with digestion, jaundice, itching, nausea and vomiting.

A neuroendocrin tumor doesn’t have a high likelihood of spreading or being fatal. A neuroendocrine carcinoma can be much higher grade though, and behave much more aggressively.

Noting that Aretha Franklin reportedly lived with her disease for eight years, Dr. Jones points out that patients with a neuroendocrine tumor may not ever die of their disease.

Dr. Jones continues that the decision to treat the patient with radiation as opposed to surgery depends on the cell type and the extent of the disease at the time of diagnosis. Surgery is the gold standard of how a patient with exocrine cancer should be treated. Chemotherapy has a strong role in treatment, and in certain instances, radiation. For neuroendocrine tumors, it depends on the grade of the tumor. “For certain high grade tumors, radiation and chemotherapy have very important roles, but for many low grade tumors or tumors that are very localized, then surgery is the mainstay of treatment.”

Apple founder Steve Jobs fought a similar cancer for a long time and remained productive. “When I hear neuroendocrine pancreas cancer, it’s hard for me to know without having more details what the expected outcome for that particular patient would be,” Dr. Jones concludes. “There are certain very high grade ones that behave in a similar way to a small cell lung cancer, which tends to be an aggressive disease. There are others that tend to be very treatable, and patients will very likely live a full life only having to manage certain symptoms.”

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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