Soul singer Sharon Jones, lead singer of funk/soul/R&B band Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, has lost her over three year battle with pancreatic cancer. The singer’s rep said in a statement:
“We are deeply saddened to announce that Sharon Jones has passed away after a heroic battle against pancreatic cancer. “She was surrounded by her loved ones, including the Dap-Kings.”
In June 2013, Jones had been forced to cancel her tour when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 bile duct cancer. In a statement to The Guardian, Jones explained:
“Over the last few weeks I haven’t felt good and I didn’t know what was going on…. We just found out that I have a stage-one tumor on my bile duct. Luckily we caught it really early and fast and the doctors say it’s operable and curable! I will be having surgery very soon and will have to rest and recover.”
Jones underwent extensive surgery, telling Rolling Stone, “On the 10th of June  I had the Whipple procedure. They had to remove my gall bladder, the head of my pancreas and they took out a foot and a half of my small intestine. Then they built me another bile duct and connected it to my stomach. They had to cut me right across my diaphragm, all the way down to my navel.”
The surgery was followed by chemotherapy, a slow, difficult recovery. In February 2014, Jones made a triumphant return to the road with her band, promoting a new album, Give the People What They Want. These events were captured by filmmaker Barbara Kopple who had already planned to make a documentary about Jones’ life and career, but who now unexpectedly, was also documenting her cancer battle. Although she at first questioned whether to continue filming, Jones realized she needed to continue, telling NPR, “Doing the film was also my therapy, and I knew that it would help someone out there with cancer, or going through it, as long as I inspired someone.”
Jones continued to sing, touring with Hall & Oats, even though she was diagnosed with a recurrence of pancreatic cancer in May 2016. Doctors found cancer cells in her stomach, lymph nodes and lungs, and she’s back on chemotherapy. But Jones remained upbeat, telling Billboard’s Soul Sister podcast: “I’m not ready to give up yet. I get up on the stage and the pains seem to go away for a while.”
Some reports say Sharon Jones had cancer of the bile duct. Other articles say it was pancreatic cancer. Why the confusion? For a lot of reasons, it’s hard to tell these cancers apart. Some experts think that they’re just two different names for essentially the same thing.
To understand this better, let’s start with the anatomy of the organs. The gallbladder is the green organ located under the liver on the left side of the picture. The gallbladder contains bile, a liquid substance made in the liver that helps the body to digest fat in the diet. Bile is stored in the gallbladder until it’s needed and then it’s pumped into the small intestine when food moves from the stomach to a part of the small intestine called the duodenum. The small pipe or tube connecting the gallbladder with the duodenum is called the bile duct.
The pancreas is the yellow organ in the picture and one of its main functions is to make proteins called enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. Pancreatic juice is a liquid containing these enzymes that collects in a pipe or tube called the pancreatic duct, which empties into the duodenum and mixes with food passing by. Pancreatic ductal carcinoma is the most common form of pancreatic cancer. In this case, the cancer arises in the cells lining the pancreatic duct.
As seen above, the bile duct and the pancreatic duct join together at the entrance to the duodenum. So you can imagine that telling the difference between “bile duct cancer” and “pancreatic duct cancer” can be very challenging because both essentially arise in the same location. In fact, there are additional reasons why the distinction between these two cancers may be meaningless.
The same surgical procedure is used for both types of cancer. It is called the Whipple Procedure. A surgeon removes the head of the pancreas and the adjacent section of the duodenum. Then he/she reconnects all of the “plumbing” to re-establish a functional digestive system.
Beyond surgery, the chemotherapy used to treat both bile duct and pancreatic cancers is essentially the same. The tumors are also genetically similar. Both have common mutations in genes called KRAS and TP53.
For more information about bile duct cancer, click here.
For more information about pancreatic cancer, click here.