Late actor Michael Landon was a household name—and a massive heartthrob—from the ’60s through the ’80s, and America mourned when the star announced his advanced stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis 30 years ago, and died just three months later on this very day at 54-years-old.
A recent documentary-style show on Reelz, Michael Landon’s Autopsy: The Last Hours of, questioned the cause of Landon’s cancer, noting that Landon’s hit show Little House on the Prairie filmed near the Santa Susana Nuclear Laboratory, the site of a nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959 called one of the worst radioactive disasters in U.S. history.Read More
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“Studies have concluded that (the Santa Susana nuclear reactor meltdown) was responsible for up to 2,000-cancer-related deaths and lead to a 60 percent increase in cancers such as lung, bladder, kidney, liver, blood, lymph node, upper digestive track and thyroid cancers,” forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter says on the show. But ultimately, Hunter says after examining the Report of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel from October 2006 and Landon’s autopsy results, there’s no connection between the location of the laboratory and Landon’s cancer.
Landon’s Cancer Diagnosis
Landon’s pancreatic cancer had spread to his liver and was inoperable at the time of diagnosis.
Landon received chemotherapy treatment, but the prognosis was grim. Even now, the 5-year survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer that has spread to distant areas of the body is around 3%, according to the American Cancer Society.
Nevertheless, the handsome TV star handled the diagnosis with humor and grace. “I think you have to have a sense of humor about everything,” he said at a 1991 press conference. “I don’t find this particularly funny, but if you’re going to try to go on, you’re going to try to beat something, you’re not going to do it standing in the corner.”
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It’s often difficult to diagnose pancreatic cancer early. By the time patients visit a doctor with symptoms, the disease is often too advanced to treat. Since the pancreas is in the abdomen, it’s hard to tell issues specifically within the pancreas. Only about 20% of individuals with pancreatic cancer will actually qualify for surgery.
“By the time individuals walk into the clinic with symptoms like jaundice, weight loss, back pain, or diabetes, it’s often very late in the stage of the disease,” Dr. Anirban Maitra from MD Anderson Cancer Center tells SurvivorNet.
Each year in the United States, about 53,000 patients get pancreatic cancer, “And unfortunately, most will die from this disease within a few months to a year or so from the diagnosis,” he says. “And the reason for that is that most individuals, about 80%, will actually present with what we called advanced disease, which means that the cancer has either spread beyond the pancreas or into other organs like the liver, and so you cannot take it out with surgeries.”
Challenges to Screening for Pancreatic Cancer
Landon’s Rise to Fame
NBC TV show Bonanza (1959-1973) made Landon a star, but it was Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) that kept the actor with the curly, dark-haired mane and charming smile going strong in Baby Boomer living rooms across the nation for over a decade. As a male, Landon has the second most TV Guide magazine covers after late talk show host Johnny Carson. The late I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball was the most-featured of all time.
Landon has said that he was shy with girls growing up, who were often scared of him because of his long hair, but he eventually learned how to manage his locks and clearly made it work.
The New Jersey-native began acting after moving to California where he went to school at USC after earning a scholarship for track and field, which only lasted one year and then Landon was left in L.A. to learn how to make ends meet.
One of Landon’s last shows was starring on the series he created, Highway to Heaven, from 1984-1989. He played an angel who had died 40 years ago but came back to do God’s work.
“I was driving through Beverly Hills to pick up my kids on a Friday night, and people were honking at each other,” Landon recalled to the L.A. Times in 1988, on how he came up with the concept. “There is no worse place for that than Beverly Hills; I think when people have a little bit more money, they really believe that the Red Sea will part and their car will go forward. And I thought, ‘Why is everybody so angry? If they would just spend that same time being nice… It’s obvious the flow of traffic is going to go much better if everybody has his opportunity.’”
The actor never won an Emmy (or was even nominated), but he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995 posthumously, finally getting the recognition he deserved after 30 years in television.
Landon, who was married three times, is survived by his wife Cindy, who was with him at his bedside when he died, and nine children from his three marriages.
“He was laughing and making jokes up until the last minute,” Cindy, now 64, had said. “There was never self-pity for himself, there was never anger. He was always upbeat.”