December 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Aretha battling pancreatic cancer

The 68-year-old Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, said she had a “highly successful” surgery last Thursday. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is battling pancreatic cancer, The Detroit News has learned from three sources close to the singer's friends and family.

Franklin, 68, was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has earned 18 Grammys in her storied career. Her fiery, soulful voice and peerless musicianship has led to accolades like music critic Dave Marsh's remark that she is the "greatest female voice of her generation." With a track record of hits including "Respect," "Chain of Fools" and "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," it's hard to find anyone who disagrees.

When the Detroit singer announced in November that she was taking six months off under doctor's orders, she did not reveal her illness. But in the last several weeks she has reached out to others, including some with cancer, disclosing hercondition and asking for advice and prayers.

Many who know her are hopeful. "We're all praying for Aretha, that she'll pull through this," said the Andantes' Pat Lewis, who toured as a backup singer with Franklin. "She has too many more songs to sing. She's still young yet."

It was only after reporters flooded her publicist with inquiries last Thursday that Franklin released a statement that she had successfully undergone a surgical procedure that day. Calling the surgery "highly successful," Franklin praised her "superb doctors and nurses who were blessed by all the prayers of the city and the country."

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest a person can have, though about 15 percent to 18 percent of those with the disease can survive with surgery, said Dr. Elliot Newman, chief of gastrointestinal surgical oncology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

"Even though it's a small number, there are a group of patients who present with disease that can be cured surgically … if we can get it early enough," Newman said. Among the surgeries is the Whipple operation, which involves removal of the pancreas along with parts of other organs, and reconstruction so people can eat and digest food normally, Newman said. People are candidates for this when the tumors are small and not spread outside the pancreas.

"It gives people a chance to be cured of the disease," Newman said.

Interest in Franklin's health was heightened on Wednesday when the National Enquirer reported in its new edition that she had pancreatic cancer (although the tabloid incorrectly identifies her online as a "Motown" legend, when she actually recorded for Columbia, Atlantic and Arista).

As news of her illness spread across Twitter on Wednesday, Tweets about Franklin poured in and "pancreatic" became one of the top trending topics in the U.S. Fans also posted messages on the Queen of Soul's Facebook page, sending their prayers and wishing her a speedy recovery.

Her publicist, Tracey Jordan, had no comment on Franklin's illness Wednesday.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited and prayed with Franklin on Sunday in Detroit, told The News that she was "recovering, and her spirits are high. She's doing very well. She's very prayerful. She's a woman full of deep religious faith." The singer takes daily walks up and down the hallway of her hospital, Jackson said.

Franklin has also spoken to Motown legend Smokey Robinson, who grew up near her in Detroit's north end in the 1950s. The two chatted by phone Sunday night when Robinson was on his way by limousine to the Kennedy Center Honors program in Washington, D.C. Robinson said she was expected to be released from the hospital soon. Robinson, whom Franklin has called her "sandbox friend" because they knew each other as children, called Franklin, he said, because it was the first time he had attended the Kennedy Center Honors without her.

WCHB-AM radio personality Mildred Gaddis, a friend, said it was enough for her that Franklin said she was recovering. "Anything beyond that is personal."

Brian Pastoria, who owns Harmonie Park Studios in Detroit, has worked steadily with Franklin over the last decade and said he was "crushed" when he heard about Franklin's health. "I kind of knew it already, but until you hear it, it's like, 'Wow,' " he said.

Franklin calls him personally, Pastoria says, when she wants to record, rather than going through managers. "She's pretty personal and hands on," Pastoria said. "When she works with us, she'll just call me and say, 'Brian, hi honey, I want to book the studio.' I have saved messages of hers over the years, 'cause it's just cool to have Aretha call you."

Gospel singer Vickie Winans, who performs at yearly revivals at Franklin's father's church, New Bethel Baptist, was "hurt" by the reports that Franklin has cancer. "That's devastating," she said. "I love Aretha. I pray for her every single solitary day."

Staff Writers Kim Kozlowski, Adam Graham, Oralander Brand-Williams and Leonard N. Fleming contributed.