Teona Ducre.Share on Pinterest
Long-time cancer survivor Teona Ducre (pictured above) is working to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer in communities of color to help improve patient outcomes for more Black Americans. Images Provided by Teona Ducre
  • After surviving stage 3 pancreatic cancer, Teona Ducre is advocating for equal care for others in communities of color.
  • Black Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than any other racial or ethnic group.
  • Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include back pain, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, changes in stool, and recent-onset diabetes.

At 41 years old, Teona Ducre assumed the back pain she was experiencing was simply due to the aging process and exercise.

“I was going to a chiropractor and getting massage and just thinking I’m getting older. [But] then I started getting this very severe stomach pain and I wasn’t feeling good. I was fatigued,” she told Healthline.

After a fellow teacher she worked with urged her to see a doctor, Ducre visited an urgent care clinic, where she was told she might have the h-pylori virus or an ulcer. However, neither turned out to be the case and because she had lost weight and had a low grade fever, the doctor ordered a scan.

“She didn’t say she thought it was cancer, but I finally went to get the scan and within a couple of hours she called and said, ‘[There’s] some kind of mass and it’s covering a significant portion of your pancreas. I want you to get to a specialist and check it out,’” recalled Ducre.

On April Fool’s Day 2016, she was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer, which meant the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, but not her organs. However, the tumor was pushing up against her spleen.

After Ducre received the diagnosis, she searched online for information. At the time, reports showed that the survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer was 7% after 5 years. Today, that has jumped to 12%.

“Treatment options have improved over the last few years, but treatment is still very challenging,” Dr. Michael F Driscoll, director of the gastrointestinal malignancy program at Norton Cancer Institute, told Healthline.

He said treatment is best undertaken with a multidisciplinary team, which consists of medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgical oncologists, interventional radiologists, and nurse navigators, along with dietitians, and more.

Lynn Matrisian, PhD chief science officer of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), said research shows that people who receive treatment based on their biology can live longer.

“For that reason, PanCAN strongly recommends all pancreatic cancer patients get genetic testing for inherited mutations as soon as possible after diagnosis and biomarker testing of their tumor tissue to help determine the best treatment options,” she said.

Driscoll noted that while there is not a single diagnostic test approved for screening of pancreatic cancer, genetic testing may reveal a predisposition, such as a BRCA mutation, for people with a strong family history of the disease.

“In high risk populations, screening with CT scans, MRI, or endoscopic ultrasound may be warranted,” he said.

Additionally, due to clinical trials, Matrisian said treatments and treatment combinations are becoming available for people using standard treatments and innovative approaches, such as targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

Teona Ducre (center) with her daughter (left) and her son (right).Share on Pinterest
Teona Ducre (center) with her daughter (left) and her son (right).Images Provided by Teona Ducre

Ducre turned to PanCAN for help finding a qualified specialist near her home in Atlanta.

“I went through several doctors before I found a doctor who was able to get me in. A lot didn’t have availability or didn’t take my insurance or were 3 or 4 months out,” she said.

Because her tumor was too large to operate on, she consulted with a medical oncologist who prescribed 6 months of chemotherapy with the hope of shrinking the tumor, so it could be removed.

“It was standard of care at the time for prolonging my life, not necessarily saving my life, just giving me longer. At the time they gave me 21 months. My son was a sophomore and my daughter was in 8th grade so 21 months was not going to get me to either graduation,” said Ducre.

The treatment was successful and she underwent surgery to remove the tumor, as well as the spleen. Then she had 6 months of chemotherapy after surgery as a safeguard. For the first five years after diagnosis, she received scans every 3 months, blood work, and met with her oncologist.

However, because the standard of care is based on data for a 5-year survival rate, once she reached five years post-diagnosis, insurance no longer covered scans.

“So, I go every six months instead of every three months [and pay out of pocket],” she said.

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Teona Ducre (bottom center) poses with her PanCAN affiliates. Images Provided by Teona Ducre

Right after her diagnosis, Ducre attended a local PanCAN meeting. Although she was the only survivor in attendance at the time, she met caregivers and loved ones of those living with and who had passed away from the disease.

“Their passion and dedication to doing something to make patient outcomes better I think is what inspired me to want to be involved,” she said.

As a PanCAN volunteer, her biggest passions are spreading awareness about the disease and addressing the health inequity and disparity that impacts communities of color.

“I know how it played out for me and I don’t want it to be luck of the draw for people in Black communities that some just happen to get better healthcare,” said Ducre.

Black Americans are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than any other racial or ethnic group and have the highest incidence rate of pancreatic cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute SEER data.

“It is important for the Black community to understand the signs of pancreatic cancer and to openly communicate with their healthcare team about any concerning symptoms,” said Matrisian. “Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague unexplained symptoms, which is one of the reasons it is so often diagnosed at a late stage.”

Common symptoms include:

  • Back pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice
  • Changes in stool
  • Recent-onset diabetes

Ducre didn’t know what pancreatic cancer was or what the symptoms were when she was diagnosed.

“What I’d like for people in the community is to understand what symptoms are, so that they can be responsive to that in terms of going to see a provider, asking for a scan, knowing in your family if anyone has pancreatic cancer, finding the right doctor that will treat you,” she said.

Through PanCAN, she shares the knowledge she has gained by helping others navigate the process.

“When an African American patient calls me, I hear more than not ‘well, the doctor just told me to go home and get my affairs in order.’ When I talk to other patients, I don’t hear that as often as I do in Black communities and at this state where we have a 12% survival rate and we know there are a lot of therapies out there…saying to someone just go home and settle your affairs isn’t acceptable,” said Ducre.

“In the fight against pancreatic cancer, clinical trials often provide the best treatment options because they give patients early access to leading-edge investigational treatments that can lead to progress in research, improved treatment options, and better outcomes,” Matrisian said.

Ducre wants people in the Black community to ask about clinical trials, seek out doctors who have their best interest in mind, and know they have as much right as anybody to advocate for their health.

“[In] our communities because there are a lot of dynamics happening socioeconomically sometimes advocating for our health is on the bottom of the list,” she said. “Part of being a long-time survivor is we never stop advocating for ourselves in any form.”

In honor of Black History Month, PanCAN will host “A Conversation About Pancreatic Cancer in the Black Community” on Thursday, February 23 at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET