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Maria Menounos details 1st pancreatic cancer symptoms. She says doctors dismissed them

Maria Menounos opened up to People about her battle with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, which she was fortunate to catch at stage 2.
/ Source: TODAY

Maria Menounos revealed that she was diagnosed with a rare type of pancreatic cancer in January 2023 — and that she was only able to catch it early because she advocated for herself.

The 44-year-old TV personality, who's currently expecting her first child via surrogate with husband Keven Undergaro, first shared her diagnosis with People magazine on May 3 and joined TODAY on May 4 to detail her journey with the condition.

Menounos told co-anchor Hoda Kotb that she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which runs in her family, in June 2022. Then a few months later, in the fall, she remembers experiencing "excruciating pain" while on a plane. "I didn't think I was going to make it through the flight," she said. But because she was eating a farro salad at the time, she brushed it off as a sign of gluten intolerance, she recalled.

Then in November, she said she "had excruciating abdominal pain again" coupled with "loose stool," or diarrhea, which lasted for about a month.

To get to the bottom of her symptoms, Menounos pursued various tests, including a CT scan, and stool and blood tests, all of which had "unremarkable" results, she said. But the pain persisted, and at some points she felt like “someone was tearing my insides out," she told People.

"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 told Hoda, adding that she knew "something was wrong."

So, the former "E! News" host decided to get a full-body MRI, which revealed that she had a 3.9-centimeter mass on her pancreas.

"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.'"

She underwent a second MRI, which also confirmed she had a mass. Still, when she went to get it biopsied, the doctor said he was skeptical that it was anything to worry about, telling her it was likely pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.

"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.'"

A biopsy later confirmed it was a stage 2 neuroendocrine pancreatic tumor, which is rare and less deadly than the more common pancreatic cancer diagnosis of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Because she was able to catch it early and the type of tumor she had is less aggressive than other pancreatic cancers, she had a good prognosis.

In February, Menounos underwent surgery to remove the tumor, as well as the tail of her pancreas, her entire spleen, 17 lymph nodes and a uterine fibroid "the size of a baby," she told Hoda.

Menounous told People the recovery was "super painful," but she doesn't need any additional treatment, just annual scans for the next five years.

First pancreatic cancer symptoms

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate of all major cancers at 12%, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. But Menounos' type of pancreatic tumor has a better prognosis on average, according to the American Cancer Society. Its overall five-year survival rate is 53%, per the ACS.

Pancreatic cancer doesn't usually cause symptoms and therefore usually isn't detected until it has spread outside the pancreas, making it more difficult to treat. Pancreatic tumors also often don't show up in most medical imaging, as was the case with Menounos. And because the pancreas sits so deep inside the abdomen, patients aren't able to feel it, as they might with breast cancer, for example.

What's more, the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be vague and attributed to other conditions. So that's why experts in treating it recommend knowing the early signs and advocating for yourself if you experience any of them, especially for more than a few weeks.

With Menounos' type of tumor, symptoms vary but usually include "acid reflux, burning abdominal pain ... other gastrointestinal symptoms," a more general pain in the body or jaundice, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Many pancreatic cancer patients say their first symptoms were stomach or back pain, which may come and go initially, or get worse after meals or when lying down, according to Cleveland Clinic. Menounos said she'd have "bouts of severe abdominal pain, and then it would go away. ... I kept telling people this doesn't feel right."

Other common early pancreatic cancer symptoms, according to Dr. Suneel Kamath, pancreatic oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, include: fatigue; sudden, rapid weight loss; and pain in the middle of the stomach under the breast bone. But not everyone gets these. 

“What happens a lot of times is people either think it’s just acid reflux, that they ate something funny or they ascribe it to some other thing for a while,” Kamath previously told “They’ll see their doctors and many of them will be started on acid reflux medicines or other things targeting general stomach issues."

"That’s why I emphasize anything that goes on for ... five, six weeks at a time isn’t going to be your garden variety reflux, indigestion, constipation-related stuff," he continued, adding that because pancreatic cancer is still pretty rare, most doctors won't assume these symptoms could be a sign of it.

Alex Trebek, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2020 after being diagnosed less than two years before, shared in a 2019 PSA that one of his first symptoms was "persistent stomach pain." Patrick Swayze, who died in 2009, had jaundice as one of his first pancreatic cancer symptoms, which is common, per the ACS.

“He came to me and he said, ‘Do my eyes look yellow?’” his widow, Lisa Niemi Swayze, recently told “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.’”

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."

"I'm just so lucky that I'm going to be able to hold my baby in the summer," she added. "That's the best blessing of all.

CLARIFICATION (May 4, 2023; 8:55 A.M. ET): This story has been updated to clarify that the type of tumor Menounos had, a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, is different from the more common diagnosis of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.