The Queen of Soul Has Incurable Pancreatic Cancer

I say a little prayer for you tonight, Aretha.

Aretha Franklin, the legendary Queen of Soul, photographed earlier this year (Courtesy: Freep)

It was confirmed today that Aretha Franklin, 68, the almost mythic Queen of Soul, has incurable pancreatic cancer.

Rumors had been swirling since Franklin canceled all of her scheduled appearances until next May and underwent emergency surgery last week. Some have wondered publicly whether Franklin suffered from either cancer or a heart condition, although the singer said from her hospital bed that the surgery was a success.

It was possibly in response to the National Enquirer story that revealed that Franklin did have pancreatic cancer and had less than a year to live, that some of Franklin’s people finally spoke.

Since the print edition streeted this morning, family members have since confirmed the ENQUIRER’s exclusive to Detroit media.

Aretha has sadly been stricken with pancreatic cancer, the same type of cancer which felled actors Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon.

The cancer has only a 5 to 10 percent overall survival rate – according to medical experts.

Experts analyzed the singer’s age, obesity and poor physical condition which lowers the chances of surviving the disease even more.

However, the Detroit Free Press says that Franklin’s closest relatives, sister-in-law Earline Franklin and her cousin Brenda Corbett will flat out not discuss the exact nature of her illness.

Aretha is doing better than doctors expected,” Corbett said. “She has a long life in front of her and will be back in concert, on stage, late spring or early summer.”


Referring to the Enquirer story, Corbett said, “This girl is doing great and they need to stop it.”

Earline Franklin, Aretha‘s sister-in-law, refused to discuss the National Enquirer report at all. “Aretha is doing absolutely wonderful. All the prayers and well wishes have supported her and she’s doing well.”

So there are still conflicting reports about Aretha’s condition.  It looks like some relatives who were concerned and were not being kept in the loop by Corbett and Franklin blabbed the truth. Or worse, hospital employees broke confidentiality (possibly for remuneration; The Enquirer is still good for that) and passed the tabloid key information which the relatives, when approached, confirmed.  

Corbett and Franklin may have been charged with damage control and maintaining Aretha’s privacy as well as reassuring fans and promoters alike.   I would hope that what Corbett says is true,  but it does not look very good if Aretha does have pancreatic cancer.   This cancer does not play games. From Web MD’s visual guide to understanding this disease:

[…] The lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 72. Pancreatic cancer ranks as the fourth deadliest cancer. […] The pancreas is a 6-inch-long spongy, tube-shaped organ located in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. It has two major jobs in the body: to make digestive juices (enzymes) that help the intestines break down food, and to produce hormones — including insulin — that regulate the body’s use of sugars and starches. […]

Pancreatic cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells grow, divide, and spread in the tissues of the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer is called a “silent” disease because symptoms typically do not present in the early stages. But as the cancer grows and spreads, pain often develops in the upper abdomen and sometimes spreads to the back. The pain may become worse after the person eats or lies down. Other symptoms may include jaundice, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, weakness, and depression. […]

Although the exact cause of pancreatic cancer is not known, smoking is the main risk factor, with smokers 2-3 times more likely to have the disease than nonsmokers. Age is also related, with the disease usually striking after age 45. Diabetes is also linked to pancreatic cancer, with about 10-20% of those diagnosed with the cancer having diabetes. Other risks include chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. And family history of pancreatic cancer, high fat diet, obesity, and lack of exercise can also play a part.

I know that Aretha Franklin was a smoker. Early photos of the singer in the studio show her with a lit cancer stick. Reviewers remarked on her husky voice, altered by chaining tobacco, when she released Who’s Zoomin’ Who? with her comeback single, “Freeway of Love,” in the early 1980s. She may already have been diabetic because of her weight. She did not exercise regularly. Remember, Aretha is only 5’5″ tall; she is a little woman.   She is not Bessie Smith, another iconic singer and the Queen of the Blues, who was said to be as big as a man: at least six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds before she died of injuries suffered from a car crash.  Aretha’s eating disorder possibly exacerbated any symptoms like back pain, fatigue, weakness and depression.

Why depression? I mentioned on another blog that I thought that delayed grief and isolation may be at the root of her overeating problems as well. This woman took very much to heart the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., which helped spark her period of drug abuse in the early 1970s; the long death of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin,  who never emerged from a coma after he was shot by a burglar; and that of her closest siblings, Erma, Cecil and especially younger sister Carolyn.  It’s also been long rumored that she may have even witnessed the knifing death, in New York, of King Curtis, the leader of her backup band The Kingpins on the iconic Live at Fillmore West album, by a junkie.  Seeing someone getting killed; having to endure watching a deeply loved parent slowly die, missing the siblings she loved, is bound to have a lasting impact on any person.

Her marriages and relationships waxed and waned: Ted White, Ken Cunningham, Glynn Turman.   Late in the decade, in 2007, Aretha was said to be marrying for the third time to her long-time boyfriend Willie Wilkerson Jr., a former firefighter, and to be losing weight in anticipation of the wedding, but nothing at all came of it.  It is not clear whether Aretha and Wilkerson are still together.  Nonetheless, even between her engagements, as I once read, Aretha ate and ate.   It wasn’t about mere hunger, appetite or nervousness, I thought, but that the food gave her the comfort and reassurance that she could not give herself to face the world.  And because she was one of those old-time Christians, she left it to the divine, and not to a qualified shrink as well to help her work this out.

Recently, in August, Aretha broke two ribs in a fall, scuttling her much publicized tour dates with former Secretary of State and pianist Condoleezza Rice.  The following month, one of the eldest of her four sons, fiftyish Edward Franklin, was brutally beaten by three people–said to be two men and a woman–while at a gas station in northwest Detroit, and as a result was hospitalized.   It has not been a very good end of year for Aretha.

I know that among some of my online friends, I used to criticize Aretha for her weight, for her propensity to over-expose her large breasts, and for her lack of fashion sense. It was not out of a sense of cutting the woman down just for the fun of it as others might do, but out of wishing her well, wanting her to live longer and with dignity; and not seeing her as a laughingstock.  She’s been defensive and she’s been a diva. Now, Aretha, just like Elizabeth Edwards, may be getting beyond all that.  Queens and divas are still very human and very mortal.

Aretha, ‘Retha, The Queen of Soul, Lady Soul, Miss Re, Miss Re Re. Under any of these names, her  singing has been the iconic soundtrack for many women, even to cinematic characters like Bridget Jones and Murphy Brown.  Before all that, however, she’s been ours–that is, she belongs to black people and especially to black women.  She talked OUR talk about men and relationships, from “Dr. Feelgood” to “Freeway of Love” to “A Rose is Still a Rose.”  Even as a tween, when she burst onto the scene in the mid-Sixties with “I Never Loved a Man,” and then “Respect,” I loved the stories she sang about being a grown woman, and having to deal with heartache and having hope to love again.   She showed me that love was both spiritual as well as sensual, and that it was part of being a fully alive woman.  Her “hollering” that even some black people I knew disparaged was really the undisguised clarion of sexual satisfaction–and of joy.

I wish Aretha joy tonight, and the many nights left to her.  Always.

~ by blksista on December 8, 2010.

3 Responses to “The Queen of Soul Has Incurable Pancreatic Cancer”

  1. This is the post I meant. It’s been linked to the Aretha Tribute at


  2. I pray GOD’s blessing upon Aretha and her family…IN JESUS NAME, AMEN.


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