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How pancreatic cancer has been a deadly disease for American icons in 2020

CNN logo CNN 9/19/2020 By Kelly Mena and Lauren Mascarenhas, CNN
Ruth Bader Ginsburg wearing glasses: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington, August 23, 2013. © Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington, August 23, 2013.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, and earlier this year, she announced a recurrence of the cancer, having discovered lesions on her liver.

The deadly disease has now taken two of America's political icons, including the late US Democratic Representative John Lewis, in the last three months, and thousands more Americans as one of the deadlier cancers in the country.

There are two types of pancreatic cancer: exocrine tumors and endocrine tumors. There are currently no general screening tools for pancreatic cancer, and there are often no symptoms in the early stages, when the tumor would be most treatable. The cancer is often discovered at more advanced stages, sometimes when it has spread to other organs, known as metastasis.

As people age, the risk of developing pancreatic cancer goes up. Most patients are older than 45, and nearly 90% are older than 55. The average age at diagnosis is 71.


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Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States in 2020, after lung and colorectal cancers, according to The National Cancer Institute. The institute says that about 10% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive for five years or more.

The pancreas is an oblong organ that lies deep in the abdomen and is an integral part of both the digestive and endocrine system. It secretes hormones to regulate the body and digestive enzymes to break down food.

Pancreatic cancer is usually controllable only through removal by surgery and only if found before it has spread, according to the Cancer Institute.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 57,600 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020 and 47,050 will die due to the disease.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Saturday went over Ginsburg's history with the deadly disease while a guest on Anderson Cooper 360 noting that this past July seemed to be a turning point in the Justice's battle with the disease.

"[G]oing back to July, I think it was pretty clear that this cancer was not going to be something that was going to be effectively treated, they just didn't know how quickly it would spread," Gupta said to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Ginsburg is the second icon lost this year who battled with pancreatic cancer following the passing of Lewis, a Civil Rights icon.

Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last year and died this July. Higher rates of pancreatic cancer are seen in men and African Americans. Late-stage pancreatic cancer is typically treated with chemotherapy, which can last for several months, and sometimes immunotherapy. Either or both can improve survival, but typically only by months, not years.

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