According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, with an overall 5-year survival rate of 9 percent. The cancer society predicted that 57,600 Americans would be diagnosed with the cancer in 2020, while 47,050 would die from the disease. As we mourn those who were taken from us this year by COVID-19, we can’t forget the many thousands who lose their lives to this and other cancers each and every year.
As we come to the end of 2020, there are several remarkable victims of pancreatic cancer who merit a departing glance. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a beacon of justice and equality, certainly deserves mention. RBG, as she became known to her numerous admirers, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 and served with distinction for 27 years, until her death in September. She died of complications of pancreatic cancer, having survived her first bout with that vicious cancer in 2009, as well as colon cancer in 1999 and lung cancer in 2018.
Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December and passed away in July. In death he received high honors from a grateful nation for his tireless work over seven decades to advance equal rights and racial justice.
Alex Trebek, the much-admired host of “Jeopardy,” announced his diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2019. After a tough fight against long odds, he succumbed to the disease this November.
Closer to home, the disease took the life of a remarkable resident in Idaho, my cancer buddy Rich Hall. I’d been diagnosed with the disease in January 2017, but thanks to a gifted surgeon and a wonderful oncologist, I was pronounced cancer-free later that year. Not long after, Rich called to say he had the cancer, was being treated by the same physicians and would like to compare notes.
I’d been casually acquainted with Rich and knew he was respected as one of the most respected attorneys in the state, but had not gotten to know him well. We soon formed a strong bond because of our shared malady but also because we shared the same professional values and political outlook.
My wife, Kelly, and other family members were instrumental in getting me through the cancer journey, but it was comforting to also have a friend who was going through the same ordeal. Rich and I both looked to RBG, who had recovered from the cancer so long ago, as a source of hope. When Rich learned he was cancer-free in 2018, it was a great triumph for both of us. We both were encouraged when either of us got a positive quarterly checkup report.
Rich did not let the disease get the best of him. He was a talented singer and he used that talent to raise $70,000 for St. Luke’s Cancer Institute (formerly MSTI) and for cancer research and assistance. He also performed periodically for the enjoyment of cancer patients at the MSTI infusion center.
When Rich got troubling news about a possible return of his cancer earlier this year, he took it with grace and dignity. It was a shock to me because for almost two years it seemed we both had dodged a bullet. The news got worse, and he passed away on Oct. 6. I had the honor to sit by the side of my cancer buddy for a while the night he passed, along with his wife, Tonya, and four daughters, Christine, Tara, Mishi and Erin. I understood how he had drawn such strength from them.
Cancer of the pancreas has been difficult to diagnose early on and hard to fight once it is discovered. More research, driven by more funding, is absolutely essential to getting a handle on this deadly disease. People can help by making a contribution to St. Luke’s Cancer Institute or to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or both. It will help save the lives of remarkable Americans like Rich and the others we have lost this year.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho attorney general and a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice. His previous columns can be found at JJCommonTater.com