Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Brand, Swayze deaths cast new spotlight on pancreatic cancer

News is breaking that NCAA president Myles Brand died today from pancreatic cancer. Brand is best known as the man who fired Bobby Knight. He had little choice after putting the coach on probation after decades of Knight's increasingly bizarre and physically abusive behavior at the University of Indiana and specifically after Knight choked one of his players. Brand had to fire Knight while he was on probation after Knight grabbed a student (not one of his players) by the arm and lectured him. Brand then was elevated to president of the NCAA, and was by all accounts one of the more effective presidents of an organization that to many people provides a model of how a non-governmental entity can police itself and its own members.

Just last week, actor Patrick Swayze, who had gone public with his diagnosis, also died from pancreatic cancer. Swayze is best known for his roles in the hit movies Ghost and Dirty Dancing. He survived a fall from a horse in 1998 that broke several bones and went on to star in several more films. It's also worth noting that in an era when divorce is as common in Hollywood as product placement in movies, Swayze was married to his high school sweetheart, the former Lisa Niemi, for more than 34 years until his death.

2009 has cast a spotlight on pancreatic cancer more than any year in the past. Many Americans first heard of the disease in 2004, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs was diagnosed with it. Although he successfully underwent surgery that year, his health since then has been inconsistent and is the subject of much speculation. In January of this year, Jobs underwent a liver transplant (not directly caused by the pancreatic cancer, but of course any strain on the pancreas, which produces digestive enzymes results in an increased strain on the liver which produces bile and also helps with digestion.) Then in February Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then last week, Swayze died from pancreatic cancer.

I've known about it for several years because one of my friends (who I usually see only once or twice a year) survived pancreatic cancer several years ago. She has been very active in promoting pancreatic cancer research but it still doesn't get as much coverage as some other types of cancer.

The truth is though that most people who get the disease die of it. Survival rates have improved significantly for lung, breast and prostate cancer, all of which have received a lot of publicity (and the research money that goes along with publicity) for a long time. Thought pancreatic cancer accounts for just two percent of U.S. cancer diagnoses it accounts for six percent of deaths from cancer, in part because the survival rate is low (about 20% survive for five years, with Steve Jobs now joining my friend in that category.) Most patients are like Swayze and Brand, and do not survive the disease.


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