After years of speculation about her health, her representatives confirmed her cancer battle.
“Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, MI,” her reps said in a statement to PEOPLE.
Fans had been wondering about Franklin’s health since she underwent a mystery surgery on Dec. 2, 2010. She didn’t reveal what the procedure was for, saying only that it was “highly successful.” But later that week, a relative told Fox 2 in her hometown of Detroit that she had cancer, and the National Enquirer reported that it was pancreatic.
Worried fans organized a candlelight vigil in Detroit after hearing the news of her hospitalization.
Keeping Her Health Private
In January 2011, Franklin said that she’s “not going to even deal with” the reports of her cancer.
“I don’t have to talk about my health with anybody other than my doctors,” she said in an interview with JET, adding, “The problem has been resolved.”
Her Weight Loss
In months following the procedure, Franklin lost 85 lbs., leading some people to speculate that she had undergone weight loss surgery.
“Definitely not — and would not,” she told Access Hollywood in response. “I heard that [rumor]. I said, ‘That is crazy.’ “
Franklin did add, though, that her weight loss was due to the unnamed surgery.
“But it definitely was not the bariatric or, what is it, gastric by… Yeah, I can’t even tell you the correct name of it,” she said.
The singer also changed her diet post-surgery, cutting out fatty foods and anything she would typically eat with hot sauce, she said.
“That’s off the menu now … and no pig feet, either,” she said, jokingly, on The Wendy Williams Show in March 2011. “I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures, and I was saying [to myself], ‘You were entirely too fat for words.’ ”
Franklin denied the reports that she had pancreatic cancer again in an extensive interview with PEOPLE in May 2011.
“I read the rumors, and they were just ridiculous,” she said. “I feel fabulous.”
The mother of four added, though, that her post-surgery prognosis was good, and the doctor told her the procedure “will add 10 to 15 years to my life span.”
“My habits have taken a 180-degree turn for the better,” she says. “I’m really taking far better care of myself. It used to be a struggle for me just to get upstairs in my home.”
Franklin also shared more about her healthy new habits, which included measuring out her food and daily weigh-ins.
“I’m finding out that you’re not gonna starve [if you limit yourself],” she said, adding that she learned to love nuts, greens and fresh produce. “I make a mean salad,” she said, along with enjoying the occasional indulgences. “I have a cup of ice cream. I don’t go hog wild.”
She also started exercising regularly — 1.5-mile walks three days a week — and shared her goal of eventually fitting into a size 16.
A Return to Performing
After a half-year hiatus from touring, Franklin continued to perform for the next six years — but with increasingly frequent cancellations for health reasons. She had to skip a planned performance at her close friend Whitney Houston’s funeral in February 2012 due to leg spasms.
“I had every intention of being there,” Franklin said in a statement. “But unfortunately I had terrible leg spasms and locked leg muscles until 4 a.m. this morning following my concert last night, which I’ve been having for the last few days.”
The cancellations continued through 2012 and 2013, until the second half of the year. In August 2013, Franklin told the Associated Press that she had a “miraculous” recovery and would be back on stage when she’s fully better.
“My treatments are going very well. My last CAT scan, my doctor at the CAT scan and everyone who sees this says that this is miraculous, absolutely miraculous,” she said. “Any time you have cancellations you should be concerned. But all prayer is good, and keep me in your prayers until I am 100 percent, not 85, and back onstage.”
Franklin was able to perform again for the next three years, until she had to cancel several concerts “due to doctor’s orders” in August 2016. In February 2017, she announced that it would be her last year performing. Her final appearance was Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala for his Elton John AIDS Foundation on Nov. 7, 2017.
Her Final Week
On Monday, a source told the Associated Press that Franklin was “seriously ill.” A source confirmed the news to PEOPLE, saying her death was “imminent.”
“She has been ill for a long time,” the longtime friend said. “She did not want people to know and she didn’t make it public.”
Franklin died early Thursday morning at her home in Detroit, with her family and friends at her bedside.
“In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” read a statement shared with PEOPLE. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
“We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on.”