John Lewis likely to stay in D.C. for treatment of pancreatic cancer

U.S. Rep. John Lewis announced Sunday that doctors have diagnosed him with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The Atlanta Democrat is expected to stay in Washington for treatment, and he pledged to attend votes in the U.S. House when his treatment schedules permits it. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

U.S. Rep. John Lewis is expected to remain in Washington to receive treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis he announced Sunday.

That treatment, according to medical experts, is likely to focus on preventing the disease from spreading further and inhibiting symptoms from growing worse.

Dr. Bassel El-Rayes is an oncologist and clinical researcher with an emphasis on pancreatic cancer at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. He has no direct knowledge of Lewis' case but has worked with many other patients facing a similar diagnosis. One of the first things he explains to them is that successful treatment of stage 4 pancreatic cancer is not defined by curing the disease but managing it.

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“Our goal is to control the cancer, keeping it in check and preventing it from spreading or involving other organs,” he said.

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Although Lewis is 79 years old, he appears to be in good health and a candidate for chemotherapy as well as clinical trials that could introduce innovative treatment options, El-Rayes said. Lewis’ doctors will likely also create a molecular profile of his particular cancer in order to ensure therapies are tailor-made.

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Pancreatic cancer remains difficult to treat, and although survival rates are improving, it remains one of the most dangerous types of the illness.

The National Cancer Institute reports that over half of the people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer were at stage 4, defined as the level where the cancer has spread to other organs or metastasized. The overall survival rate for the disease is 9% after five years, but that drops to 3% for those at stage 4.

The disease has proved to be tough to treat. While developments with immune therapy and chemotherapy have improved survival rates for other types of cancer, pancreatic cancer has been less responsive. It is often caught late and after spreading, further contributing to its impact on patients.

“This type of cancer has proven to be a very big challenge for us,” El-Rayes said.

In his statement Sunday, Lewis said he is “clear-eyed” about his newest fight. The Atlanta Democrat pledged to remain in office and attend votes in the U.S. House as his treatment schedule permits. There has been no discussion about him stepping down, and for now he also intends to run for re-election in 2020.

He has not released details about where he will be treated or whether he and his doctors have agreed upon a game plan, which could also include surgery or radiation.

Other politicians and celebrities with pancreatic cancer diagnoses include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.; and television host Alex Trebek.

Trebek — by sharing his story, including his remission and a recurrence of cancer — has helped others find hope to continue fighting the disease, said Kerri Kaplan, the president and CEO of the Lustgarten Foundation, a nonprofit pancreatic research organization.

The host of “Jeopardy!” and others have also helped raise money, which in turn funds more research that will help others facing pancreatic cancer in the future. Kaplan said clinicians often encourage patients to disregard the statistics and focus on finding the right treatment options for their specific case, including clinical trials that test new drugs or combinations.

“Even though there is no cure, people are living longer and there is a much better quality of life,” Kaplan said. “Twenty years ago patients lived months; now many patients live years. And as you live longer, there are new things down the line all the time. So we don’t want patients to give up; we want them to really fight.”

Read more | Rep. John Lewis is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer