Whenever I saw interviews featuring Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who became the public face of pancreatic cancer, I would breathe easier.
Pausch, famous for the last lecture he gave last September that subsequently was turned into a best-selling book, was diagnosed with that cruel disease in September 2006, shortly before my big brother, Anthony L. Davis, was.
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Pausch, 47, died July 25 despite his valiant efforts to overcome his disease. My brother, 60, died Monday morning.
Some sources estimate more than 37,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and more than 34,000 of them will die as a result. The five-year survival rate is less than 5 percent, and it is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
That number might sound manageable. Three other cancers obviously kill more people.
But when you consider that pancreatic cancer accounts for only 2.5 percent of new cancer cases but is responsible for 6 percent of all cancer deaths, you can see why whenever I mentioned my brother's diagnosis to medical professionals, they all said ”that is a bad one“ or words to that effect.
I didn't like that.
I didn't like people giving up on my big brother so easily.
After all, I had survived lung cancer twice. Why couldn't he defeat pancreatic cancer?
And at first, it looked like he had.
An engineer accustomed to finding answers to problems, my brother had researched all there was to know about pancreatic cancer. He had endured months of chemotherapy treatments that vastly shrank his tumor and brought all his cancer indicators back to normal.
He lost a lot of weight, but he was fine, traveling again. Enjoying life.
Then a few months ago, he was the one who told his doctors that he thought his tumor had returned. Nothing showed on the ultrasound.
But he was right.
This time, however, the chemo, despite modifications, did not work. He never experienced pain as do most patients, which was a blessing.
My sister, daughter and I visited him last week. He was weak and thin, but his mind was as strong as ever.
And he knew. He knew.
He had asked my sister, who had mailed him a CD of a sermon about making choices, when should we make the choice to die.
The pancreas is about 6 inches long, the shape of a flat pear, and it hides behind the lower stomach. It is crucial to the digestive system. It secretes enzymes that aid digestion and hormones, like insulin, that help process sugars.
Most pancreatic cancer isn't detected until it reaches an advanced stage. According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, symptoms usually develop gradually, which is why it is so deadly. No standard screening exists for pancreatic cancer, and there is no clear-cut indicator of who should undergo one.
One survivor of pancreatic cancer is Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple. One who succumbed was opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Actor Patrick Swayze is battling it now, and so is Canadian rowing coach Bent Jensen, who has been receiving chemotherapy in his hotel room in Beijing during the Olympics so he could be with his team.
While we were visiting my brother, who lived in Leesburg, Va., near Washington, D.C., I read a column by Matthew Dallek, who usually writes about history and politics for Politico. He noted that he was one of the lucky ones. He had an islet-cell pancreatic cancer tumor, as did Jobs, which is controlled by surgery.
Like Pausch, who testified before Congress to urge increased funding for research, Dallek wants more money directed to researching a cure for pancreatic cancer, which he called the ”orphan of American medical research.“
He is biking through the Civil War battlefields of Maryland to raise money, but he said fighting this cancer will require fatter wallets.
”The National Cancer Institute spent nearly $600 million on breast cancer research in 2006, compared with a meager $74 million for pancreatic cancer research,“ Dallek wrote. ”In the past three years, it has provided only five grants to younger scientists who want to investigate this deadly form of cancer.“
Would my big brother still be alive had more money been designated? I don't know.
But if we start demanding more now, it might help someone in your family.