Congressman John Lewis: What you need to know about pancreatic cancer

Rep. John Lewis announced Sunday he has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer

U.S. Rep. John Lewis announced Sunday that he has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

“While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance,” Lewis said Sunday.

"So, I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”

Lewis says he will seek treatment for the cancer. Here is a closer look at the disease.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer, like other cancers, begins when cells start to grow out of control. The overgrowth of cells interferes with the normal function of the pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer can spread to the lungs, stomach, spleen and bowel.

What is the pancreas, what does it do and where is it in our bodies?

The pancreas is behind the stomach in humans. The head of the organ is wide, and the body tapers to a narrow pointed tail end. In adults, it is around 6 inches long (think of the length of a dollar bill).

The head of the pancreas sits on the right side of the abdomen with the body behind the stomach and the tail near the spleen on the left side of the abdomen.

The pancreas produces chemicals to digest food. The organ secretes a clear, watery substance that contains enzymes that break down food.

What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?

From WebMD, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Pain in the upper or middle abdomen and back
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

What are the risk factors for pancreatic cancer?

From the American Cancer Society, here is a list of factors that could put you at risk for developing the cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Inherited conditions (including hereditary pancreatitis)
  • Familial pancreatic cancer syndromes
  • Longstanding diabetes
  • Obesity

How is pancreatic cancer treated?
It depends on the stage of the cancer when it is discovered.

If the cancer is not advance, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy is often used. However many if not most pancreatic cancers are not found until they are advanced.

What is the outlook for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer?

The disease is called a “silent killer” because it is usually not found until it has spread from the pancreas, making it extremely difficult to treat.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 23 percent of patients with cancer of the exocrine pancreas are alive one year after they are diagnosed. Only around 8.2 percent will be alive five years after a diagnosis.

Which other famous people have died of the disease?

  • Aretha Franklin - singer
  • Jack Benny – comedian
  • Sally Ride – astronaut
  • Ben Orr – one of the founders of The Cars
  • Donna Reed – actress
  • Brock Peters – actor
  • Ralph Ellison – novelist
  • Rex Harrison – actor
  • Wilma Mankiller – first female chief of the Cherokee Nation
  • Randy Pausch – professor of computer science and author of "The Last Lecture"
  • Syd Barrett – founding member of Pink Floyd
  • Michael Landon – actor
  • Wernher von Braun – developer of the V-2 rocket and aerospace engineer
  • Ben Gazzara – actor
  • Luciano Pavarotti – opera singer
  • Steve Jobs – founder of Apple
  • Bill Hicks – comedian
  • Patrick Swayze – actor
  • Alan Rickman – actor
  • Joann Crawford - actress