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Photo by: Lorie Shaull | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was known for her views on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and affirmative action.

Ginsburg has had several bouts with cancer, including colon cancer in 1999 and surgery to remove lung nodules in 2018. She was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, and earlier this year she underwent chemotherapy to treat a recurrence, this time in her liver. She said the treatment was “yielding positive results” after immunotherapy proved unsuccessful.  

Dae Won Kim, MD, gastrointestinal oncologist

Dae Won Kim, MD, gastrointestinal oncologist

“Pancreatic cancer is surrounded by thick fibrous tissue and an immunosuppressive environment, which inhibits infiltration and anticancer function of immune cells,” said Dr. Dae Won Kim, a medical oncologist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Around 1% of pancreatic cancers have specific gene mutations that are very sensitive to immunotherapy.” 

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate of any cancer, at 9%. According to the American Cancer Society, about 57,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease this year.

Pamela Hodul, MD, gastrointestinal surgeon

Pamela Hodul, MD, gastrointestinal surgeon

“The incidence rate for pancreatic cancer has crept upward by about 0.5% annually for more than a decade,” said Dr. Pamela Hodul, a gastrointestinal surgeon. “It will soon become the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. behind lung cancer.”

It is not clear what causes most pancreatic cancer cases and it is hard to diagnose in early stages. Because of this, it is especially important to be aware of possible symptoms, including:

  • Pain in the abdomen and back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Changes in stools (constipation or diarrhea)
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Enlargement of the gallbladder
  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, loss of appetite or other digestive issues

In advanced stages, patients with pancreatic cancer may also experience:

  • Blood clots that form in the deep veins (deep vein thrombosis)
  • A swollen or distended abdomen caused by a buildup of fluid