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What is neuroendocrine cancer? Bernie Sanders' daughter-in-law dies after diagnosis

Rainè Riggs died Saturday, the day Sanders returned to Vermont after suffering a heart attack
/ Source: AP (Associated Press)

The daughter-in-law of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

Rainè Riggs was 46.

The Lee & Martin Funeral Home in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, says Riggs died Saturday, the day Sanders returned to Vermont after suffering a heart attack. Her obituary said she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer.

Riggs, a neuropsychologist, was married to Levi Sanders, who ran unsuccessfully for a New Hampshire congressional seat in 2018. Riggs' obituary says she met Levi Sanders while the two worked at an emergency food shelter in Vermont.

The obituary said Riggs was the director of behavioral medicine at Dartmouth Medical School for several years, and she started the Palliative Care Department for Dartmouth Medical Center. She also owned Riggs Geriatric Psychology in Windsor, Vermont.

Riggs and Sanders had three children.

What is neuroendocrine cancer?

When Riggs became ill three weeks ago, the hospitals where she sought help "were stumped," her obituary noted. She died two days after her diagnosis.

"Her last words were to tell her children how much she loved them and she was so sorry that she got sick," her family wrote.

Neuroendocrine tumors are rare and can be challenging to diagnose, according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. They start in the body's neuroendocrine cells, which receive messages from the nervous system and then release hormones into the bloodstream, the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation noted.

Neuroendocrine tumors can develop anywhere in the body, but most grow in the digestive tract, pancreas, rectum, lungs or appendix, the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center said. They can be benign or cancerous, slow-growing or quick to develop. They can also spread to other parts of the body.

There are several types of neuroendocrine tumors, but Riggs' obituary didn't specify which type of tumor she was diagnosed with.

This cancer usually occurs sporadically — with most patients having no family history of the illness. Fewer than 2,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

What are the symptoms?

One in three patients had symptoms of neuroendocrine tumors for five years or more before being diagnosed, according to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation. But the cancer can sometimes cause no symptoms at all.

The warning signs vary depending on where the tumor is growing, how large it is and whether it produces hormones. UPMC listed these possible symptoms:

  • too much or too little sugar in the blood
  • persistent pain in a specific area
  • diarrhea
  • unexplained weight gain or loss
  • persistent fever or night sweats
  • persistent cough or hoarseness
  • yellowing of the skin
  • headache

Treatments for neuroendocrine tumors include surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy.