Not even celebrities are exempt from dismissive doctors when it comes to investigating alarming symptoms – former E! host and actress Maria Menounos is just one of the latest forced to self-advocate just to get a diagnosis. Here’s what she wants people to know about neuroendocrine pancreatic tumour, from the red flags to navigating the medical system.
“I just started guttural crying because I’m like, ’How could God finally bless me with a baby after 10 years? And now I'm not going to get to meet her,’” Menounos recounted to TODAY.
Renowned TV personality Maria Menounos recently shared her harrowing experience with a rare type of pancreatic cancer, revealing that in January of this year, she received a diagnosis that changed her life: a rare Type 1 neuroendocrine pancreatic tumour. Different to the more well-known form of pancreatic cancer known as an adenocarcinoma, that took the lives of Patrick Swayze and Steve, this rare kind of cancer may have a higher survival rate, but it's still an often fatal disease. Her ability to catch it early was a testament to her determination and persistence amid getting the brush-off from a number of doctors, despite experiencing agonising abdominal pain, diarrhoea and feeling like “someone was tearing my insides out.”
"Anytime I complained about it thereafter, my doctors told me, 'well, we just scanned and everything was fine,' but I kept feeling in my upper-left quadrant this throbbing," Menounos said.
Finally, a full-body MRI – of which the former E! host had to push doctors to allow her to have – revealed a 3.9-centimeter mass on her pancreas, a discovery that left both Menounos and her radiologist concerned.
"The mass kept persisting in every image," Menounos said. "(The radiologist) goes, 'You need to go to the hospital right away.' And he's white as a ghost and he's shaking. My eyes started to well, and I just look at him and go, 'So I'm a goner.'"
The 45-year-old actress and mother to now 5-month-old Athena later underwent a biopsy to determine the nature of the mass, with her doctor initially suggesting it might be pancreatitis. But when the results came back, his tune changed.
"When I came out, he goes, 'Oh, this is definitely something,'" Menounos continued. "I remember waking up the next morning, and I hadn't really cried, but I just started guttural crying because I'm like, 'How could God finally bless me with a baby after 10 years? And now I'm not going to get to meet her.'"
The biopsy confirmed that she had a stage 2 neuroendocrine pancreatic tumour, a rare but less aggressive form of pancreatic cancer – the entertainer’s early detection was pivotal in ensuring a positive prognosis. Unfortunately, and as is the case for so many cancer patients, self-advocation is vital in receiving care before the disease has spread. If Menounos had listened to that first GP, she may not have survived her cancer.
"I don't think it's easy for anyone to look at someone like me and think 'oh it's pancreatic cancer,'" Menounos says.
Early Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is notorious for its low survival rate, with only 12% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis – you may know it as the disease that took beloved actor Patrick Swayze’s life. This is because it often goes undetected until it reaches an advanced stage, making it challenging to treat. Menounos’ rare type of pancreatic cancer has a 53% five-year survival rate – while that’s better than 12, those aren’t the best odds. Early symptoms can be vague and are frequently attributed to other conditions, leading to delayed diagnosis. Knowing the signs and advocating for oneself is crucial, especially when these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks. Menounos’ experience underscores the importance of being proactive about your health – and it’s not always easy to put the pressure on your doctor to order those tests. If you find your GP isn’t listening to you, don’t hesitate to find a new one.
The common early symptoms (though they can show up at any stage of the disease; it's why cancer is known as the silent killer, too many people have no symptoms at all until the disease has spread) of pancreatic cancer include:
- Stomach or back pain that may worsen after meals or lying down
- Acid reflux and burning abdominal pain
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Sudden, rapid weight loss
- Pain in the middle of the stomach under the breastbone
Despite these symptoms, many patients – or their doctors – initially mistake them for acid reflux or other common stomach issues. Healthcare experts advise individuals to seek medical attention for symptoms that persist for several weeks, as garden-variety stomach discomfort typically doesn't endure for that long.
Swayze, who died in 2009 from the disease, suffered from jaundice – unlike Menounos, his condition was only uncovered in the later stages. Lisa Niemi, his widow, told TODAY the alarming symptom sent them in search of answers.
“He came to me and he said, ‘Do my eyes look yellow?’” she said. “He had some digestive problems, pain that wouldn’t go away. But it was mostly the yellow eyes that sent us to the doctor. He said, ‘Oh, we’ll go in next week.’ But I thought, ‘Yellow eyes just doesn’t sound normal. We need to go tomorrow.’"
The Dirty Dancing actor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed on 22 months later in what Niemi described as a “heartfelt, gruelling, tough, determined fight.” Unfortunately rates are slim for those diagnosed late – and it’s why Menounos is determined to share her story to help improve the survival rate.
Menounos said one of her goals of sharing her story is "to sound the alarms to everybody that you have to be the CEO of your health. ... You know your body. You know what's going on. I'm grateful that I'm in this position, and I know God made this all happen for me to be able to help other people,” she says. “I'm just so lucky that I'm going to be able to hold my baby in the summer.”
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