Maria Menounos has revealed she's recovering from a rare type of pancreatic cancer.
The former "E! News" correspondent, 44, was diagnosed with a stage 2 pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor in January and underwent surgery three months ago to remove the mass, measuring 3.9 centimeters.
"When you're met with a potential death sentence, everything changes," she told People magazine. "I need people to know there are places they can go to catch things early. You can't let fear get in the way. I had that moment where I thought I was a goner — but I'm OK because I caught this early enough."
Menounos' diagnosis came after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (which runs in her family) in 2022 and an episode of "excruciating abdominal pain coupled with diarrhea" last November.
When she went to the hospital for her gastrointestinal symptoms last fall, a CT scan didn't uncover anything, as is often the case with pancreatic cancer. "They said, 'Everything's fine.' But I kept having pains," Menounos recalled, adding that, at one point, it felt like "someone was tearing my insides apart."
A friend who owns a company offering full-body MRIs suggested she get one, which showed the mass on her pancreas. A biopsy confirmed it was a cancerous neuroendocrine tumor.
In February, Menounos had the tumor surgically removed, as well as part of her pancreas, her spleen, a fibroid and 17 lymph nodes.
"It was super painful. I couldn't move or lift myself up," she said. But fortunately, the star doesn't need chemotherapy or any additional treatment, beyond a scan every year for the next five years.
Her recovery feels especially emotional since she and her husband, Keven Undergaro, are currently expecting a daughter, their first child, via surrogate. "I'm so grateful and so lucky," she said. "God granted me a miracle. I'm going to appreciate having her in my life so much more than I would have before this journey."
Menounos also referenced a previous health scare when speaking with People: In 2017, the TV personality discovered she had a golf ball-sized growth pushing on her facial nerves in 2017 after experiencing dizziness, headaches and slurred speech.
"How in the freaking world can I have a brain tumor and pancreatic cancer?" she quipped to the magazine.
The brain mass turned out to be a meningioma, a type of brain tumor that’s overwhelmingly benign. Doctors removed the tumor during surgery in June 2017, and a year later Menounos told TODAY.com she was recovering well.
"I feel so blessed and so grateful because I've been given so many miracles," Menounos said on TODAY during an interview with Hoda Kotb on May 4.
"You have to be the CEO of your health. ... You know your body, you know what's going on."
What is pancreatic cancer?
The pancreas is a 6-inch long gland that lies between the stomach and the spine, according to the National Cancer Institute. It helps the body break down food and regulate blood sugar.
About 95% of pancreatic cancers begin in exocrine cells, which produce the digestive “juices.”
Pancreatic cancers that begin in endocrine cells — which make hormones like insulin — are far less common, but also less aggressive, slower growing and come with a better prognosis, according to the American Cancer Society. This is the type Menounos said she was diagnosed with.
The two types of cancer are biologically different and treated differently, with targeted therapies specifically approved for pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network noted.
The more common type of pancreatic cancer is especially lethal because it grows silently deep inside the abdomen so there’s no lump to feel and the symptoms can be vague. By the time most people are diagnosed, they face a grim prognosis with few treatment options.
Recent high-profile people who died from pancreatic cancer include talk show host Jerry Springer, who died this month, and “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, who passed away in November 2020.
Actor Patrick Swayze told his wife, “I’m a dead man,” when he found out about his diagnosis, she recalled in an interview with TODAY.com last week. He died in 2009.
What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?
The early stage of the disease often causes no symptoms, which is why the cancer is so deadly: It’s usually caught only when it becomes large and spreads outside of the gland. It’s also hidden behind other organs including the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder, spleen and bile ducts.
When symptoms do occur, they can be vague and mimic warning signs of other illnesses. The American Cancer Society says they include:
- Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
- Light-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Itchy skin
- Persistent abdominal pain or back pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very tired
- Nausea and vomiting
- A new diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes
Fewer than 20% of pancreatic cancers are confined to the pancreas when they are found, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.
What is the survival rate?
The overall statistics for the more common type of pancreatic cancer remain grim: Only 12% of patients live five years after learning they have the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. That makes it the lowest five-year survival rate of all major cancers, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors is 53% and climbs to 95% when the cancer is caught before it’s spread outside the pancreas, the American Cancer Society noted.