Pancreatic cancer is one of deadliest forms of cancer in the United States, with less than 10% of those diagnosed surviving past five years. Each year, more than 50,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S.
These are facts Randi Jacobs, 63, knows all too well; her life has been forever changed by pancreatic cancers, which killed her mother, her grandmother and almost killed her, too.
Today, Jacobs, who grew up in Mt. Airy and now lives in Lancaster, is an advocate for increased funding for pancreatic cancer research and has worked to raise money for the cause.
In 2005, her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 10 months later. Jacobs’ grandmother had died from the disease two decades earlier.
While there are several risk factors, including smoking and old age, the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully understood. However, for a small number of people, genetics does play a role. For Ashkenazi Jews who develop pancreatic cancer, there is a greater chance that an inherited defective BRCA2 gene is to blame.
So, in 2009, Jacobs and her two sisters participated in a clinical study at Penn Medicine studying people who had lost two immediate relatives to pancreatic cancer. While both her sisters’ results came up clean, Jacobs’ results showed pre-pancreatic cancer. The next week, a surgical team removed most of her pancreas. While she has developed Type 2 diabetes as a result of the surgery, she said she’s lucky to be alive.
The symptoms of the cancer are vague, such as mid-back pain and a loss of appetite. So many don’t know they have it until it’s too late.
“All the time, I would tell my sister, ‘You saved my life,’ because she got us into this study,” Jacobs said. “Without sounding sappy, I am so grateful that I am still here.”
Jacobs made pancreatic cancer her “personal cause” and has become an advocate. About five years ago, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend National Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day for the first time. There, she met other survivors and people whose lives have been affected by the disease.
“And when I came home, I realized that I just didn’t feel alone. I didn’t know anyone who had pancreatic cancer, other than mom and my grandmother. And I felt like I was now part of a community and I had people to talk to,” Jacobs said. “That really was a turning point for me, because now I had a whole community to talk to and share our stories.”
Jacobs has since become involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCAN. Since 1999, the organization has worked to support research, clinical initiatives, patient services and advocacy.
Bruce Platt is PanCAN’s Philadelphia affiliate chair. He became involved after his mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
Platt said pancreatic cancer doesn’t get the same amount of press coverage and funding of other cancers, like breast and colon. He said that’s due to fewer people getting the disease, along with a lower number of survivors to tell their stories. But with increased survival rates in recent years and celebrities like Jeopardy host Alex Trebek sharing their stories of fighting the disease, more people are becoming aware.
It’s something Platt said his mother would be glad to hear.
“The one thing my mother always complained about, and this is the reason why I got involved with PanCAN, she always complained that there was nobody, there was no voice,” Platt said. “You never hear anything, and if you did hear anything, it was a blurb and that was it. So I promised my mother that I would be her voice.”
Ben Z. Stanger, the director of Penn Medicine’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, said that over the next five years pancreatic cancer is expected to become the second-deadliest cancer in the U.S. after lung cancer. This is due to an aging population and improved treatments of other cancers.
“In general, we’re winning the war on cancer, but in critical battles, in pancreatic cancer, we’re not making much progress,” Stanger said. “Its incidents are creeping up. It’s not an epidemic, but there certainly are more and more every year, and we attribute that to the aging population.”
To help raise awareness and fundraise, Jacobs and Platt have supported PurpleStride Philadelphia, an annual walk put on by PanCAN. The walk this year is on Nov. 2, coinciding with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
Jacobs will be joined by friends and family in Ann’s Dream Team to support and honor the memories of her mother and grandmother. The team’s goal is to raise $3,000.