Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the Supreme Court since 1993, died of pancreatic cancer Sept. 18.
Ginsburg battled cancer several times throughout her life. She was treated for colon cancer in 1999, underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and had cancerous lesions removed from her lung in 2018. Ginsburg received chemotherapy for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer in 2019.
Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. A 6-inch-long gland in the abdomen, the pancreas makes digestive enzymes and hormones, such as insulin, that control blood sugar.
No screening test exists for pancreatic cancer. And while some patients may experience “painless jaundice” as a warning sign, many other symptoms of the disease — back pain, abdominal pain, decreased energy, weight loss — are so general that diagnoses often come at later stages, says Dr. Timothy Donahue, a professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Pancreatic cancer is also particularly aggressive and resistant to most treatments, including conventional chemotherapies, targeted therapies and immunotherapies.
Risk factors including smoking and drinking alcohol, “but they’re not really strong risk factors,” said Donahue, who also is surgical director of the UCLA Agi Hirshberg Center for Pancreatic Diseases.
One of the most effective preventive measures, particularly for those with a family history of cancer, is germline sequencing, which can detect gene mutations known to increase disease risk. This kind of DNA mapping has created more potential treatment options in recent years, Donahue said.