GETS REAL: Pancreatic cancer and the African-American community

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is “getting real” about pancreatic cancer and the realities experienced in the African-American community.

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An African-American Initiative (AAI) through the National Pancreas Foundation was launched last year to bring about awareness.

The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is one of the foundation’s Centers of Excellence, meaning it has a multidisciplinary team in place to take care of patients with pancreatic disease.

“We’re very eager to enroll patients in research trials and learn more about their increased risk,” Dr. Michelle Lewis said.

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Lewis is a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic Florida and the director of the National Pancreas Foundation Centers of Excellence at Mayo Clinic Florida.

“It’s a very needed initiative,” Lewis said. “Historically, Black Americans have not been included in many research trials.”

Data from the National Cancer Institute says African Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at a 20% higher rate than any other group.

Jacksonville resident and local mother Leesha Archie has been battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer since September.

“Even though we can’t do all of the things that we used to do, we are still valuable,” Archie said.

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Archie’s diagnosis was an unexpected and overwhelming hurdle, but she’s choosing to focus on what she can control.

“There’s purpose in this,” Archie said. “I don’t know what it is necessarily right now, but

I know that my faith is strong. I know that that is the thing that keeps me going.”

Genine Adams is the chair of the Jacksonville branch of the National Pancreas Foundation.

She lost her mother to pancreatic cancer, which is why she’s made it a personal mission to put a spotlight on the realities -- especially in the African-American community.

“By the time they found it, there was nothing they could do,” Adams said. “She was not a candidate for any treatment. So for me, I feel as though we need to educate ourselves. We need to know more. We need to get the information out and know your bodies when something’s not right.”

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Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in the U.S. and the third deadliest type of cancer.

“This isn’t the kind of cancer that people are like, oh you’ll get better,” Archie said. “This is the one that people say it was great knowing you.”

Here a signs to look out for:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Losing weight unexplainably
  • Yellowing of the skins or eyes
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diagnosis of diabetes or existing diabetes that’s becoming more difficult to control
  • Blood clots
  • Fatigue

Experts say those with diabetes or other health issues are at particularly high risk, as well as those who smoke and use alcohol excessively.

About 60,000 people a year are diagnosed with pancreas cancer, and about 48,000 people a year lose their battle to the disease.

The National Pancreas Foundation has been around for over 20 years.

“We really need more funding for research to have better treatment options -- options to identify the cancer earlier so that we have a fighting chance against it,” Lewis said. “The National Pancreas Foundation has been on the forefront of trying to do that.”

To those battling currently: you are not alone.

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“I’m operating in a space of faith that I didn’t even know I could,” Archie said. “My human self is looking at my faith self like what in the world we need to be rolling around on the ground. I really am focused on giving God the glory through this process. God’s got me.”

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