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John Lewis faces hard fight against pancreatic cancer

Georgia Democrat hopeful medical advances in past 15 years will help him defeat disease

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., announced Sunday he will undergo treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., announced Sunday he will undergo treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. John Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer over the weekend. Just a decade ago, that most likely meant a death sentence.

But now, with rapid advances in modern medicine and higher degrees of success among patients receiving experimental treatment for the disease, the 79-year-old civil rights icon and longtime Georgia Democrat may have more time than many expect to put a capstone on his political legacy.

Lewis said in a statement Sunday he is “clear-eyed” about his prognosis, but that “recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases,” and he believes he has “a fighting chance.”

“I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross,” the congressman said.

Pancreatic cancer develops in two forms: adenocarcinoma and endocrine tumors.

Roughly 95 percent of pancreatic cancer patients suffer from adenocarcinoma, whereas just 5 percent have endocrine tumors. Each affliction has its own set of treatments.

Lewis did not specify which type of pancreatic cancer he has, but his statement Sunday suggests he suffers from adenocarcinoma that has spread to other parts of his body, said Anirban Maitra, scientific director of the Ahmed Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The closest recent celebrity equivalent to Lewis’ condition is Alex Trebek, the 79-year-old “Jeopardy!” host who announced in March he was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the pancreas.

[Don’t go yet, John Lewis. We need you.]

Trebek is undergoing a second round of chemotherapy after the cancer returned this fall.

The one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients is roughly 20 percent. Fewer than one in every 10 patients survives at least five years.

But in the last 15 years, researchers have developed two new standard first-line treatments for metastatic pancreatic cancer — cancer that has spread to other parts of the body — that have helped prolong more patients’ lives. 

Before the mid-2000s doctors had just one, inferior standard treatment option, Maitra said.

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Many modern pancreatic cancer patients also sign up for experimental drugs that are still in clinical trial. Patients at hospitals with well-resourced academic centers fare better against the disease.

“It has been well-documented that patients who get their treatments at what we’d call larger centers that have treated a lot of patients — that have access to clinical trials, that have access to molecular testing — many of those patients do better than those who are treated in the community,” Maitra said.

Lewis indicated in his statement Sunday that he will undergo his treatment plan in the Washington area.

Though he did not specify a clinic, the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore and Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington are world-renowned for their cancer research and are a short drive from the Capitol, where Lewis said he “may miss a few votes” over the coming weeks.

Lewis is not alone in Congress fighting his battle against stage 4 pancreatic cancer: Rep. Alcee Hastings was diagnosed with the same disease in January. The Florida Democrat is running for reelection in 2020.

Lewis burst into the national spotlight as a civil rights leader in the middle of the last century.

He helped stage segregated lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts and other nonviolent protests in Nashville in the 1950s and was one of 13 original “freedom riders” in 1961, when he was beaten and arrested for riding alongside white passengers on interstate buses in the South.

In the mid-1960s, he was chairman of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that helped register thousands of black voters in the deep South.

Lewis has represented the people of Georgia’s 5th District in Congress since 1987 and has served on the Democratic whip team since 1991. He was made senior chief deputy whip in 2003, a position he still holds.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

Lewis received booming encouragement from his colleagues in Washington after announcing his cancer diagnosis.

“If there’s one thing I love about @RepJohnLewis, it’s his incomparable will to fight. I know he’s got a lot more of that left in him. Praying for you, my friend,” Obama tweeted Sunday.

“My thoughts and prayers are with my brother, my friend, and my colleague, John Lewis, at this time. Just as he has fought injustice throughout his lifetime, I know he will battle this illness with courage, strength, and determination,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement Monday.

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