Pancreatic cancer: Appeal for awareness of symptoms of silent killer

A bereaved daughter and a cancer surgeon are among those trying to raise awareness of silent killer pancreatic cancer.

A total of 270 patients are diagnosed each year in Northern Ireland, but over half of those patients are already at stage four.

It means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, and treatment options are limited.

Symptoms include upper back pains, acid reflux, yellow eyes, loss of appetite, dark urine and pale stools, and can therefore often be ignored.

Among those trying to raise awareness is Grainne O'Neill, who's mother Anne was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, when she was 53 years old.

The Armagh woman recently celebrated her 30th birthday, the landmark occasion offering another painful reminder of her loss.

Mrs O'Neill was told she had a kidney infection after presenting with flu-like pains all over her body, and although antibiotics cleared up much of the soreness, a pain in her chest persisted.

She was subsequently told that she had stage four pancreatic cancer.

"Mummy was offered palliative chemo which gave her a few more months, but unfortunately she lost her battle seven months after her diagnosis," said Ms O'Neill.

"It was a shock to us because mummy had been basically healthy until we got that diagnosis and then it was quite fast moving so we didn't have a lot of time to get our head around things."

She added: "I don't want another family to have to go through what we have gone through, mummy has missed out on so much, this cancer has robbed us of so many years that we should have had with mummy.

"We want people to know about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer so they have a chance of early detection."

Surgeon Professor Mark Taylor said: "Late diagnosis is equivalent to poor survival.

"Only eight out of 100 people with pancreatic cancer will be alive in five years, and the key to managing it is the earlier we make the diagnosis, the more likely it is you can have surgery and chemotherapy and the likelihood then of survival increases.

"The later we see you, the less options are available."

Damien Bennett, a consultant in public health medicine and the Interim Director at the NI Cancer Registry, said that in addition to public awareness campaigns, an audit is underway to see if any systematic changes can be made to improve the pathways for patients.

He added: "The audit has two main aspects. The first is to review the care and management of patients and compare them to best practice guidelines. The second part of it is to review the impact of Covid on pancreatic cancer patients, on their diagnosis, on their management and on their follow-up.

"What we're hoping to find out from this is to look at the entire patient pathway, so we look to see how a patient is referred into the system, is it via a GP or via an emergency department.

"We know that if people come in through an emergency department then their outcomes and survival rates are much worse.

"We'll also look at what scans they got - did they get the appropriate CT scan or PET scan, we'll then look to see what surgery they got, what chemo they got and what follow up they got."

Five hundred patients will be involved in the audit, and results are due in early 2023.

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