Pancreatic Cancer: An Insidious Disease


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left our world for a better one today. Ginsburg was the consummate American and patriot, and if there’s a comforting thought to be had this evening, it’s that she’s been reunited with her friend: the late, great Justice Antonin Scalia.

The Supreme Court announced that Ginsburg died of “complications of metastatic pancreas cancer.” There’s so much to say about this awful disease. It accounts for 3 percent of cancer cases in the U.S. but 7 percent of cancer deaths. That’s because it has the lowest five-year survival rate of all major cancers at about 9 percent. Even the less threatening, local disease — which is rare — has a survival rate of only 37 percent. It takes the third most lives of any cancer every year, behind only lung and colon/rectal cancer. In 2020, the American Cancer Society predicts that almost 58,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease and over 47,000 Americans will die.

When my grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, I was about to start the sixth grade, and my family was moving into my grandparents’ house because my dad had just quit his job to go back to school. We all were aware of the grim prognosis, and we were devastated. Nevertheless, my grandfather, a practicing psychologist, didn’t seem to slow down a bit. He kept participating in family wiffle ball games, he never made a peep about the pain, and he even would drop me off at school every day at seven in the morning on his way to work. It went on like this for around seven or eight months. We couldn’t believe it. It turned on a dime though, as pancreatic cancer is wont to do. Suddenly the man who was driving me to school in the morning was spending most of his time in a hospital bed they put in his room. Nine months after his diagnosis, he passed away.

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I don’t know exactly how Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cancer progressed. I do know that it’s remarkable that she did not succumb to this insidious ailment until eleven years after she first underwent surgery for it. It was characteristic of Justice Ginsburg to beat the odds. But I doubt that that makes tonight any easier for her family. No matter how well the patient seems to be doing or how long they’ve been fending it off, pancreatic cancer never seems to surrender. We should all strive to be equally relentless in our own pursuit of more awareness, better treatments, and — this evening in particular — treating each other with decency and respect. It’s what Justices Ginsburg and Scalia would want from us.

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