Tennessee State Rep. Lois DeBerry dies after battle with cancer - WSMV News 4

Tennessee State Rep. Lois DeBerry dies after battle with cancer

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Tennessee is mourning the loss of a trail-blazing woman. State Rep. Lois DeBerry, 68, died Sunday after a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

The Democrat from Memphis was the longest-serving member of the state House of Representatives and second-longest in the entire Tennessee General Assembly.

She was also the first female speaker pro tempore in the House and the second African American woman to serve in the General Assembly.

DeBerry was first elected in 1972. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only two other female lawmakers elected that year are currently serving.

Her seat on the House floor was draped in black Monday and a candle was placed on her desk.

Gov. Bill Haslam ordered flags over the state capitol and all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff in DeBerry's honor and memory.

In a statement, the governor said: "Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her."

Funeral arrangements are still being made.

DeBerry's death is drawing more attention to pancreatic cancer, one of the toughest illnesses to survive.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-deadliest cancer, because there are few options for those who are diagnosed with it.

"It's estimated that there will be about 45,000 new cases this year, and, unfortunately, about 38,000 people will die of pancreatic cancer this year," said Dr. Emily Chan, with the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

People over age 60 are at highest risk for pancreatic cancer, and smoking is a major risk factor.

The survival rate is so low for several reasons. Sometimes the location of the cancer makes surgery difficult.

Many times, surgery isn't an option.

"Less than 25 percent of the people can have surgery when they are diagnosed, because their cancer has already advanced beyond surgery," Chan said.

Still, pancreatic cancer doesn't get the level of awareness or the funding that other types of cancer receive.

And while cancer may have taken her life, DeBerry's advocacy in fighting the disease could help others in the future come out on top.

"There's a lot of room for progress in this disease. Here at Vanderbilt, we have a big research effort going on because we know that we should be able to do better," Chan said.

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