Maria Menounos reveals she beat pancreatic cancer after early detection: 'So lucky'

Maria Menounos has revealed that she beat pancreatic cancer after an early diagnosis in January. And now, she's advocating for others to be proactive about their health.

The 44-year-old former E! News correspondent opened up about her experience fighting and beating cancer in a People interview published Wednesday. Her battle arrived as she and husband Keven Undergaro are preparing for the birth of their first child via surrogate. Early detection, she said, saved her.

"I need people to know there are places they can go to catch things early," the "Heal Squad" podcast host told the outlet. "You can't let fear get in the way. I had that moment where I thought I was a goner—but I'm okay because I caught this early enough."

Menounos has dealt with a series of health complications, including a brain tumor half a decade ago, and a type 1 diabetes diagnosis. But she prevailed over all, having the brain tumor removed, and improving her glucose levels by taking insulin and following a specific diet, she told People. She felt she was doing really well by last October.

Maria Menounos has revealed she recently survived pancreatic cancer.
Maria Menounos has revealed she recently survived pancreatic cancer.

But a month after, she found herself back in the hospital with abdominal pain and diarrhea. After testing and a CT scan, doctors found nothing.

"They said, 'Everything's fine.' But I kept having pains," she told People.

As her pain continued, she looked for answers and turned to a full-body MRI scan with a company called Prenuvo, which offers scans to the public for a fee. She said the scan found a 3.9 centimeter mass on her pancreas and a biopsy showed that the mass was a Stage 2 pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, which was found to be cancerous.

"I'm like 'How in the freaking world can I have a brain tumor and pancreatic cancer?'" Menounos told People. "All I could think was that I have a baby coming."

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Menounos said she is 'so lucky'

A pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor has the ability to spread and metastasize but is less common and typically comes with a better prognosis than the more commonly found pancreatic cancer which is rooted in a different kind of tumor called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, James Farrell, gastrointestinal oncology specialist with Yale Cancer Center, told USA TODAY Wednesday.

On February 16, Menounos had surgery to remove the mass, a portion of her pancreas, a large fibroid, her spleen and more than a dozen lymph nodes. Menounos does not need additional treatment, just a once yearly scan going forward for five years.

"I'm so grateful and so lucky," she said.

Menounos reiterated her gratitude on Instagram Wednesday.

"Obviously, there's so much to say about this and what I’ve gone through these last few months, and even year," she wrote. "First, dealing with the diabetes diagnosis last summer, second (my other miracle) preparing for my soon to be newborn baby and third, pancreas cancer. I still haven't come to grips with it all, including the fact that so very few even survive pancreatic cancer."

She added that she plans to use her platform to share more information with the hope of saving others.

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Pancreatic cancer has low survival rates

"The early detection of pancreatic tumors is a key to improving the overall survival for this disease," Farrell said, noting Menounos was "very lucky" that her tumor was found.

Pancreatic cancer makes up 3% of cancer diagnoses in the U.S. and 7% of cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. Pancreatic cancer's 5-year relative survival rate across all stages is estimated to be 12% based on a number of factors. An estimated 50,550 people will die this year from the disease which claimed the lives of Jerry Springer, Alex TrebekAretha FranklinRuth Bader Ginsburg and other public figures.

Part of that low rate comes from a lack of cost-effective screenings that can reliably detect cancer in people without notable symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose.

"The majority of pancreatic tumors present at a stage that they cannot be removed surgically which offers the best chance of cure," Farrell said.

Because the pancreas is located deep in the abdomen, pancreatic tumors may develop and grow for a period before people become symptomatic. And most symptoms are not specific to the pancreas, Farrell said pointing to abdominal pain, back pain, jaundice, weight loss and depression adding that some patients present with pancreatitis or newly onset diabetes which could result in further investigation to rule out a pancreatic tumor.

Most cases are diagnosed at advanced stages when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Most people diagnosed with the cancer are not candidates for surgery because the cancer has metastasized – spread outside of the pancreas to other parts of the body.

What to know about Prunovo MRI scans

Prenuvo, the company Menounos credited for finding the mass, offers body scans starting at $999. A full-body scan costs $2499. Booking is available through the company website with locations in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and a couple of other major cities, too, with additional facilities in more cities set to open within this year and next.

"This is not a new concept of people walking in off the streets and getting scans. For a long time executive health physicals would offer this, it's not covered by insurance," Farrell said. "In the past, CT scan was used, MRI is considered safer because of the lack of radiation."

While early detection is key to survival, Farrell said current clinical guidelines don't include recommendations for CT scans or MRI scans for pancreatic tumors in patients who are low risk and asymptomatic.

That said "we do (recommend) pancreatic imaging with CT scan or MRI imaging, and in certain individuals an invasive test called an endoscopic ultrasound for people who are considered at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer," Farrell said, pointing to factors like family history, genetic predispositions, pancreatic cysts and type 2 diabetes, which is newly accepted as a risk factor.

Walking into a private imaging center like Prenuvo could prompt another issue if you are asymptomatic, according to Farrell. In some instances, patients may find something at an early stage but "for the vast majority of people that is not the case." Instead, the process could result in a lot of worry for asymptomatic patients and force the patient and doctor to undergo more workups without yielding anything significant.

The American College of Radiation released a statement on total body MRI screenings in April noting that the organization "at this time, does not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify recommending total body screening for patients with no clinical symptoms, risk factors or a family history suggesting underlying disease or serious injury."

If you have symptoms, Farrell recommends seeing a healthcare professional.

Contributing: Charles Trepany

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Maria Menounos reveals she beat pancreatic cancer amid baby news