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By Colleen Cancio
When U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) announced in December 2019 that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer, he faced the disease as he faced his lifelong struggle for civil rights – with incredible courage.
“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now. This month in a routine medical visit, and subsequent tests, doctors discovered Stage IV pancreatic cancer. This diagnosis has been reconfirmed,” Rep. Lewis said in a statement. “While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance.”
Rep. Lewis is the only living member of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Born the son of sharecroppers in 1940, he grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. Inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he became a part of the Civil Rights Movement, participating in Freedom Rides and organizing sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee as a college student. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. By the time he graduated, Lewis was a nationally recognized leader. At the age of 23, he served as a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963 where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.
Despite enduring more than 40 arrests and physical attacks – Lewis was among the civil rights activists beaten by law enforcement on the Selma bridge while marching for voting rights in March 1965 – he remains a devotee of nonviolence. Since 1986, he has also served Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, dedicating himself to what he calls the “Beloved Community” through efforts to expand access to quality education and healthcare and to ensure the civil liberties of all Americans.
Rep. Lewis’ response to this new challenge rings with characteristic perseverance:
“So 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. To my constituents: being your representative in Congress is the honor of a lifetime. I will return to Washington in coming days to continue our work and begin my treatment plan, which will occur over the next several weeks. I may miss a few votes during this period, but with God’s grace I will be back on the front lines soon. Please keep me in your prayers as I begin this journey.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that in the U.S. approximately 57,600 individuals will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to diagnosis at an early stage; often there are no symptoms or the patient’s symptoms are vague. Thus, pancreatic cancer is often not detected until late-stage disease. Recently, new medications to treat pancreatic cancer have been approved, and advances in precision medicine hold promise for some patients. Growing evidence shows that pancreatic cancer patients benefit from a multidisciplinary team approach to care that includes access to comprehensive supportive care services. Learn more about how ACCC supports comprehensive cancer care.
Colleen Cancio recently joined the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC) as Director of Development and Strategic Alliances.