Maria Menounos still remembers the excruciating stomach pain she felt after eating a farro salad on a flight a year ago.
The TV personality didn’t know it then, but she had a tumor growing on her pancreas — a rare type of pancreatic cancer that was finally diagnosed in January 2023. Doctors initially told her she was fine, but she kept pushing for answers to explain symptoms like bloating, diarrhea and the hurting stomach on the plane.
“It was like that kind of pain where you felt like you were going to explode inside,” Menounos, 45, recalls to TODAY.com.
“I thought it was the farro. I thought that I must be getting really gluten intolerant and my stomach just was not handling this well.”
In 2022, she underwent an endoscopy and a colonoscopy to try to figure out her digestive issues, but nothing came up. A CT scan also didn’t find anything, with the results describing her pancreas and other organs as looking “unremarkable,” a good thing in the medical world.
But Menounos kept having symptoms. In November 2022, she remembers being buckled over in pain.
“That’s why I keep saying to people: If the symptoms persist, so should you,” she says.
“You have to be your own advocate and you have to keep pushing. It’s exhausting, but your life really depends on it.”
In January, she decided to get a full-body MRI from a private company, which revealed she had a 3.9-centimeter mass on her pancreas. A second MRI ordered by her doctor confirmed it. Menounos was later told the CT scan missed the tumor because it didn’t show it as clearly as the MRI.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and Menounos is starring in a public service announcement unveiled by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) on Nov. 1.
The campaign highlights the importance of early detection, noting it can change the course of the disease and extend the chances of survival.
By lending her voice, Menounos joins other well-known people impacted by pancreatic cancer — including Lisa Niemi Swayze, whose husband, actor Patrick Swayze died of it in 2009 — to bring attention to the warning signs.
“With a disease as tough as pancreatic cancer, which has no standard screening test and vague symptoms, we are very grateful to high-profile individuals such as Maria who are willing to so bravely share their stories to raise awareness about the importance of early detection for survival,” Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of PanCAN, tells TODAY.com.
“Her diagnosis illustrates the fact that pancreatic cancer does not discriminate.”
What are the symptoms of 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.” This is called pancreatic adenocarcinoma. It’s stealthy and deadly, with an overall five-year survival rate of 12%, according to the American Cancer Society. By the time it’s discovered, it has usually already spread so surgery is not an option for most patients.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms can be vague, but PanCAN urges people to pay attention to these warning signs:
- abdominal or mid-back pain
- unexplained weight loss
- loss of appetite
- change in stool
- recent onset of diabetes
Menounos was diagnosed with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor — a much less common and less aggressive type of the cancer that starts in endocrine cells, which make hormones. The overall five-year survival rate is 53%. Symptoms depend on the type of hormone the cells produce and can include acid reflux, burning abdominal pain or jaundice.
“I really encourage anybody who’s having any consistent pain or symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, gas or constipation — you have to look deeper. Something’s going on,” she says.
“A lot of people just want to shush their bodies and go back to work and go back to life and pretend it’s not happening. I’ve been there.”
Life after surgery
Menounos, who is also a brain tumor survivor, advises others to seek out a second opinion, change doctors and push for more tests if the symptoms continue.
In February 2023, Menounos had the tumor surgically removed, as well as part of her pancreas, her spleen, a fibroid and 17 lymph nodes. The cancer hadn’t spread anywhere and she didn’t have to undergo any other treatment.
Today, Menounos says she’s doing well and has a great prognosis. She continues to stay vigilant for any symptoms by keeping a health journal on her phone. Menounos simply makes notes of anything she notices — any changes in stool, energy levels or appetite — so that she remembers how long it’s been going on. She’ll get a PET scan every year to monitor for any recurrence.
Meanwhile, Menounos is enjoying motherhood, calling her 4-month-old daughter, Athena, “the love of my life” and “the best medicine.”
“She’s going to be taught that the No. 1 thing in her life is to be healthy, and then she can achieve and do anything she wants from there,” Menounos says.
“I think that my next chapter of my life is going to be the healthiest because I’ve been forced to really reevaluate my health in such a deep way. It’s changed the course of everything.”
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