Aretha Franklin’s cancer doctors recall her grace, grit
Regardless of her reputation as a performer, Aretha Franklin ‘s cancer doctors say she was no diva as a patient.
As the anniversary of her death approaches, two of her doctors tell The Associated Press that the Queen of Soul handled the diagnosis and treatment with grace — and the grit to keep performing for years with a rare type of cancer.
“As a person, she was extremely kind, she was respectful, she was funny — she treated people like me and my team members as her friends,” said Dr. Manisha Shah of Ohio State University. “There is no phone call that would end without her asking about us. Most of the time she would ask about us first. … It’s because who she was: She was really down-to-earth.”
Franklin, who died in Detroit on Aug. 16, 2018, at 76, had pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, which starts in the pancreas but is far different and much slower developing than the more common, aggressive type of pancreatic cancer known as adenocarcinoma. Franklin’s kind is exceedingly rare: Neuroendocrine cancers comprise about 7% of cancers originating in the pancreas, according to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation.
Shah said she first saw Franklin after her 2010 diagnosis, surgery and treatment at Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer Center.
“I think she had her priorities very clear in her mind. … She would ask me how long this treatment would go for, what would be her restrictions,” Shah said. “As far as I can see, she was able to live that dream, or her plan.”
Of course, her illness meant some cancellations, which was to include performing on her 76th birthday in March of last year in Newark and at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April. But she gamely carried on as her illness progressed: Performances of note included closing a gala in November 2017 for Elton John’s 25th anniversary of his AIDS foundation, and bringing President Barack Obama and many others to tears in 2015 with a triumphant performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at a Kennedy Center tribute for the song’s co-writer, Carole King.
“How can the same person who is going through this cancer journey continue to do what she did all her life? It’s amazing how she went through it so gracefully,” Shah said. “She wasn’t afraid.”
Both Shah and Dr. Philip Agop Philip, a professor at Karmanos and Wayne State University, recalled how she wanted to continue her life as normally — and positively — as possible.
“She was full speed — she wasn’t even complaining,” said Philip, who first saw Franklin in early 2011 and was her doctor of record at the time of her death. “That was different than what I expected. … She never showed signs that she was close to thinking that she may give up … until the end, close to the end.”
In the public eye, she even embraced the “diva” tag, once saying, “What do YOU think?” when an AP reporter asked Franklin if she thought she was the ultimate diva while discussing a VH1 Divas concert honoring her music. Still, Philip also saw a patient who didn’t demand star treatment, saying she never made him or his staff “feel that we need to treat her as a celebrity.” Of course, given her fame, some accommodations were made: She came and went through a side door and there were more frequent changes in appointments because of performing schedule. While there, however, she was keen on doing whatever needed to be done, he said.
“She knew her body, she knew herself,” he said. “A lot of patients will ask for treatment that doesn’t really make much difference to her body. She didn’t do that.”
Shah says Franklin’s cancer — the same kind Apple co-founder and longtime leader Steve Jobs had — has many treatment options, and her doctors employed both targeted drug therapy and chemotherapy.
Shah said she talked with Franklin about traveling to Europe for a treatment before it was approved last year in the United States. It was then the doctor learned of her patient’s famous fear of flying, which anti-anxiety tapes and classes couldn’t help.
“She said, ‘Oh no, I can’t go — I don’t fly,’” Shah recalled. “We had several other options for her.”
Both Shah and Philip recall Franklin’s positivity in the face of cancer, and the positive effect that had on them as well as their colleagues.
“Aretha as a person who was fighting cancer, she was very curious, she was very calm. She was hopeful, she was optimist. This was kind of her attitude. She didn’t let cancer cripple her. She did not have that feeling that cancer was the main center of her life,” Shah said. “She lived her life as simply and beautifully and as full as possible every day. For us, it was such an inspiring journey of several years with her.”
In tribute to Franklin, Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Foundation CEO Elyse Gellerman has created the Aretha Franklin Fund for Neuroendocrine Cancer Research, with the blessing of the family. It was announced this week.
“We wanted to create this fund so that those who wanted to honor Aretha’s memory have a way to support the research,” Gellerman said.