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What to Know About the Rare Disease That Killed Bernie Sanders' Daughter-in-Law

Health.com logo Health.com 10/9/2019 Jessica Migala

Less than a week after his own surgery for heart trouble, Bernie Sanders and his family are mourning the loss of his daughter-in-law, Dr. Rainè Riggs, just two days after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Riggs, who's married to Sanders' son Levi and is a mother of three, died Oct. 5 at age 46. According to her obituary, her illness was swift and left doctors confused. "Rainè became ill three weeks ago. The hospitals were stumped,” the obituary reads. “We brought her home last Sunday to UPMC [University of Pittsburgh Medical Center], where she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. She died two days later."

Bernie Sanders wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Meredith Corporation

The quick progression of Riggs' cancer is tragic and alarming. Here's what you need to know about neuroendocrine cancer.

What is neuroendocrine cancer?

Neuroendocrine cancer is actually a rare tumor in the body's neuroendocrine cells. These cells talk with the nervous system and release hormones in response, per the National Institutes of Health’s Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (GARD). For instance, neuroendocrine cells in the digestive system tell the body when to release digestive juices and control the speed at which food moves through your system, explains the American Cancer Society (ACS).

These neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) can occur anywhere on the body, though Riggs’ obituary does not state where hers was. As GARD points out, these tumors usually found in the digestive tract, pancreas, rectum, lungs, or appendix. NETs are also rare, according to UPMC—fewer than 2,000 new cases occur each year—and they account for less than 1% of all malignant disorders in the US.

While NETs are often slow-growing (though there are some fast-growing versions, per GARD), they often often don’t show symptoms until the cancer spreads to nearby organs and affects their functioning. Those symptoms usually depend on the size and location of the tumor, along with whether the NET is functional, meaning it affects hormone production, or non-functional, meaning it does not.

When symptoms are present, they can include hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia, diarrhea, pain in a specific area, unexplained weight loss, changes in bowel or bladder habits, unusual bleeding or discharge, and persistent fevers, among other things.

As far as treatment options go, surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy can be used by itself or in conjunction with other therapies, depending on the stage of cancer and the type of NET, per the UPMC. But, while unfortunately Riggs's diagnosis was fatal, NETs are not always deadly, and survival rates depend on exactly where the tumor is located and the stage.

Gallery: 6 Cancers on the Rise in Older Adults (Provided by Insider)


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