Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reveals she's been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Here's what to know about the disease.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee shared on social media that she's been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee shared on social media that she's been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. (Reuters/Callaghan O'Hare)

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is battling pancreatic cancer, she shared in a June 2 social media post. Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing Texas, said that she is “currently undergoing treatment to battle this disease that impacts tens of thousands of Americans every year.” The 74-year-old congresswoman, who is a breast cancer survivor, added that she is “confident that my doctors have developed the best possible plan to target my specific disease."

Pancreatic cancer is typically associated with a poor prognosis, making it one of the most dreaded cancer diagnoses. That said, survival rates have been slowly and steadily ticking up and promising new treatments are on the horizon. Here’s what to know about the disease.

Located deep in the abdomen, the pancreas plays an important role in digestion and produces insulin, a hormone that is critical to controlling blood sugar levels. But, like most organs, it can develop cancer if cells mutate and start to multiply out of control. The late Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and actor Patrick Swayze are among the notable celebrities who were diagnosed with pancreatic disease.

It’s the 10th most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) and is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, behind lung and colorectal cancers. “In 2024, an estimated 66,440 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease,” PanCAN president and CEO Julie Fleshman tells Yahoo Life. Nearly 52,000 Americans are expected to die of pancreatic cancer in 2024.

Like other cancers, rates increase with age. Although the disease is more common among older people, as well as men, rates have been rising among women under 55. “It’s not fully understood why, but potential factors could be obesity and shifts in the racial and ethnic demographics” of the U.S., says Fleshman, whose father died of pancreatic cancer in 1999. The disease also disproportionately affects Black Americans, like Jackson Lee. Nearly 16 out of every 100,000 Black Americans develop pancreatic cancer, compared to 13.4 out of every 100,000 white Americans, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Part of our problem with the symptoms of this disease is that they tend to be more nonspecific than, for example, blood in the stool [indicating] you need a colonoscopy, or a lump in the breast, [indicating] you need a mammogram, Dr. Brian Wolpin, co-director of the pancreas and biliary tumor center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, tells Yahoo Life. The disease’s subtle symptoms include:

  • Abdominal discomfort: Having new abdominal pain that persists or gets worse can be a sign of the disease.

  • Unexplained weight loss: “If you’re losing weight and you don’t know why (you’re not exercising more or eating differently),” that can be a sign of pancreatic cancer, Wolpin says.

  • Fatigue: The disease may hamper digestion, meaning you don’t get sufficient energy from your food, according to Pancreatic Cancer UK.

  • Jaundice: A pancreatic tumor can block the bile duct, leading to jaundice, or the yellowing of the skin or eyes. If you are jaundiced, “that’s an obvious reason to go see the doctor,” says Wolpin.

  • Sudden onset of diabetes: Wolpin says that recent research suggests that suddenly developing diabetes and newly spiking blood sugar levels — especially for someone over 50 who is losing weight — may indicate pancreatic cancer.

The subtlety of pancreatic cancer’s symptoms is one of the reasons survival rates are low. “There is no early detection test, and the symptoms are quite benign so, usually, by the time someone is diagnosed, it’s late stage, making it hard to treat,” says Fleshman. “If you think about where the pancreas is located, it’s deep in the abdominal cavity, so you can’t touch it and feel if something is wrong.” The later the disease is diagnosed — using imaging scans — the more likely that cancer has spread to other organs, making it inoperable in about 80% of cases, says Fleshman.

Currently, only 13% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will still be alive five years later, according to the American Cancer Society's latest data. And it’s on track to become the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., because “for many cancers, the death rate is going down because we have better screening and early detection, but that’s not true for pancreatic cancer,” explains Fleshman.

Still, five-year survival rates are improving, gradually but steadily, rising by about 1% annually for the past three years. Mostly, Fleshman says, that’s because more people are getting diagnosed early enough to have surgery to remove the cancer. And treatments are getting a bit better: There are now targeted therapies used alongside chemotherapy that are more effective than chemotherapy alone, as well as forthcoming drugs designed to undo cancer-causing genetic mutations and even vaccines to help the immune system fight the disease. “It’s a tough road and a hard disease, but I think we are hopeful that these new approaches will bring benefits to patients in not too long,” Wolpin says.

Knowing your family history of the disease is critical, say Wolpin and Fleshman. If you have multiple family members who have had pancreatic cancer, you may be eligible for clinical trials to track and monitor you, and your doctor may suggest that you start screening early in addition to undergoing testing for genetic mutations linked to the disease, including changes to the BRCA2 gene.

Diabetes and obesity are considered risk factors, due to the strain and inflammation they put on the pancreas and the digestive system more broadly. And, like most cancers, drinking large quantities of alcohol and smoking both increase the risks of pancreatic cancer, Wolpin says. “Large amounts of alcohol use can cause pancreatitis” — an inflammatory condition that can be a precursor to pancreatic cancer — “so less alcohol use can be important in terms of prevention,” he explains.