Pancreatic cancer is one of the UK’s most common cancers, but survival rates are low.
Pancreatic cancer is the 10th most common cancer in the UK, with around 9600 people diagnosed each year. The disease has the lowest survival rate of all the 21 most common cancers, with just 5% of people in the UK living for five years or more after diagnosis. Shockingly, survival rates have remained largely unchanged for the last 40 years.
Early diagnosis is key to improving survival rates. Currently, 80% of people are diagnosed once the disease is at an advanced stage, when surgery –the one treatment which can save lives – isn’t an option. Just 8% of patients actually have surgery.
A late diagnosis will often occur because pancreatic cancer doesn’t usually cause many specific symptoms in the early stages, and symptoms can be quite vague. When pancreatic cancer is inoperable, treatments such as chemotherapy are used to slow down the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms.
What risk does pancreatic cancer pose and what hope is there for patients? Pancreatic Cancer UK gives us the facts, while two incredible stories speak of courage and the unpredictability of life.
Currently the standard first line chemotherapy option for pancreatic cancer patients is gemcitabine, which has been proved to extend survival by an average of seven months.
FOLFIRINOX is also routinely used to treat advanced pancreatic cancer, which can extend survival by 11 months, compared to seven months for gemcitabine alone. This treatment, however, is associated with more severe side effects, meaning the treatment is only suitable for a very small proportion of patients.
FOLFOX is most commonly used by clinicians as a second line treatment for advanced disease.
Pancreatic Cancer UK provides personalised support and information via the Pancreatic Cancer UK Support Line. Freephone 0808 801 0707 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about pancreatic cancer or Pancreatic Cancer UK, please visit pancreaticcancer.org.uk/support and follow @PancreaticCanUK.
John William Street
as told by his daughter, Melanie Hamer
My Dad was always healthy. He was a quiet, thoughtful man and he’d do anything for anybody. A draughtsman by trade, he was also a keen artist – though he played it down – and was always interested in his grandchildren’s lives, and in our business. He never complained about anything, and he was never ill.
But in the spring of 2015, Dad started getting tummy troubles, then in May, he started feeling an uncomfortable twinge under his shoulder blade, and he lost a little bit of weight. The doctor thought he might have gallstones, so sent him for tests.
Pancreatic cancer had been mentioned in passing, but the possibility of gallstones was the focus. While we waited for the test results, the tummy troubles persisted, and his urine was darker. The twinge under his shoulder blade was still there too, and he was developing back pain. But he never complained and only took some paracetamol when it was really needed.
On the 27th of June 2015, Dad’s eyes went slightly yellow – he was going to the GP for his test results on the Tuesday. I said to my Mum to take Dad to A&E if he wasn’t well before then, and he went to A&E on Monday the 29th of June, even though he disliked the fuss. There, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
On 2nd July, they told him that it was advanced and aggressive and had spread to his liver, gall bladder, stomach, and bowel. When symptoms show with pancreatic cancer it is very often too late for treatment and this was the case for Dad. We asked how long Dad had left. “Six to eight weeks,” the doctor replied. It was too late, they told us. There’s nothing to be done. We were all horrified and shocked. We had no time to come to terms with Dad being ill, let alone how little time we had left with him.
I looked at the consultant and asked him what he would do, if it was his father. “I’d take my Dad home,” he said. People say that the world stops when you get bad news. Mine did. I can still remember how I felt, looking at Dad.
My dignified Dad stood up and shook the doctor’s hand after he had received the news that he was going to die. He was such a proud and dignified man; he would have worn a tie in his hospital bed had Mum taken one in for him. It was heart-breaking.
We brought Dad home. He got everything in order, which included buying a new car for Mum, so she could get around. The palliative care nurses visited him, and though part of me wanted to keep him at home, so we could look after him there, he told us he wanted to go into the hospice. My sister, Mum and I sat vigil with him, 24/7, and he was never alone. We lost Dad a week after he went into the hospice, on the 26th of August 2015. He was 77.
It was such a shock, it was so quick, just eight weeks from diagnosis.
Pancreatic cancer can be a devastating disease. Understanding symptoms and signs could potentially lead to early diagnosis, which may lead to a more positive outcome.
I’d been feeling ill for some time, and had been relatively active, but I’d put on weight after our second boy was born. In September 2013 I weighed 24 stone. Hitting 40, I got a personal trainer, and lost nine stone.
Over Christmas 2014, my diet lapsed, and the weight went back on. Then at the start of 2015 my metabolism changed. I was pooing seven times a day. I was so tired. At night I’d fall asleep at 7.30. Previously I’d be up at 5am and off to work.
As 2015 progressed my bowel habits got worse, and despite being back to my bad eating habits I was still losing 2lb a week.
Blood tests showed high blood sugars; I was borderline diabetic. My GP sent me for a colonoscopy – nothing to be seen. The colorectal surgeon said I either had irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.
One night in August 2015, on a family holiday, my stomach felt like it was going to explode. The doctor said my blood sugars were through the roof and I was jaundiced.
I was referred again and a different colorectal surgeon spotted something on my ampulla, a mass, but “nothing nasty”. I was to have a minor operation to put a stent, which would clear the way so my pancreas could start working properly again.
I was ready to go down, and the consultant came in. “There’s no easy way to say this…you’ve got cancer.” Me? No, it cannot be me. I’m never ill. Cancer was not part of the plan. It was 9 September 2015, and I was 42. My partner Andrea came right away.
They sent me to the brilliant Christie hospital. I had a neuroendocrine tumour, with the primary in the pancreas. A big one, which had to shrink and peel away from major blood vessels, so they could operate. I started chemo the next week.
The oncologist gave me a prognosis. I had the chemo. It was still too risky to operate and they tried another chemo drug. I returned to work, ran the Manchester 10km for charity with mates. The surgeon said that he could operate, though he hadn’t done it before, and it was a major procedure.
I made a will, wrote letters to Andrea, my sons Ben and Dan, said goodbye to work. I made specific arrangements about songs and poems for my funeral. I got fit.
When I came round from the operation, the surgeon told me that they got it all out, and the tests confirmed it. I’m still under surveillance, but I’m not in pain like I was.
Cancer grabs you, but it can never take you. What is constant is hope, that is the only thing which will keep you going, for there will be dark days. You will find hope all around. Live for the moment right now; after all everything is terminal, it’s just how you make use of your time before reaching the terminus.