Hockey World Mourns Loss of Tony Esposito to Pancreatic Cancer

By Pat Carragher - August 16, 2021

Hall of Fame hockey goalie Tony Esposito died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from the Chicago Blackhawks. He was 78. His brother Phil Esposito is the founder and former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where Tony spent six years as the team’s top scout.

“The entire Tampa Bay Lightning organization is terribly saddened to hear of the passing of Tony Esposito today just weeks after his diagnosis,” the Lightning said in a statement. “Tony was a founding, cornerstone member of the Lightning family who was a fixture at games and, along with his brother Phil, played an integral role in laying the groundwork for a successful franchise in the Sunshine State when many thought it was impossible. His role cannot be understated.”

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 60,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021, while an estimated 48,000 will die of the disease. Pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the United States and about 7% of all cancer deaths.

The Blackhawks’ statement described Esposito’s battle with the disease as “brief,” which may not come as a surprise as pancreatic cancer often doesn’t show symptoms until it has grown or spread to other organs. The disease is notoriously hard to detect in early stages because most tumors in the pancreas can’t be seen or felt during routine exams.

Chronic inflammatory states such as pancreatitis, diabetes and obesity, as well as contributing factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, can increase risk for pancreatic cancer. Family history of pancreatic cancer or genetic syndromes can also increase cancer risk, including a BRCA gene mutation or Lynch syndrome.

Headshot of Sarah Burke, certified genetic counselor
Sarah Burke, certified genetic counselor

According to Sarah Burke, a certified genetic counselor at Moffitt Cancer Center, individuals identified to be genetically at risk, but not yet affected, may be eligible for annual pancreatic MRIs to aid in early detection. Moffitt is one of the only centers in Florida offering this imaging.

“We can offer screening to those who we identify to be at a much higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer,” said Burke. “They might benefit from early intervention to diagnose a tumor at an earlier stage when surgery is more likely, which could improve their overall outcome and survival chances.”

A 2018 study published by the American Gastroenterological Association looked at 354 people considered to be high risk for pancreatic cancer based on genetic factors and family history over a 16-year period. Of those patients who developed pancreatic cancer, the overall three-year survival rate was 85% for those undergoing surveillance, compared to 25% for those with cancer detected outside surveillance.

“There’s this new emerging concept of identifying based on genetic testing and family history who’s at high risk,” said Burke. “Now we actually have something to offer them, an intervention that may improve their outcome if they were to be somebody who developed cancer.”

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