Only one per cent of cancer research funding is spent on pancreatic cancer, although it is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, and it is predicted to overtake breast cancer as the fourth most common cancer not long from now. There has been no improvement in pancreatic cancer survival rates, so someone diagnosed 40 years ago had the same chance of survival as someone diagnosed now – and being blunt, that means almost no chance. Few survive past a year, fewer still make it to five.
As a country, our survival rates for cancer across the board are poor. We lag behind almost every other country in the world, when in fact we should be up there, at the top of the tree, because we certainly have the expertise and the medical facilities. But time and time again, it’s the same old story: poor diagnosis, poor treatment, delays, pass the parcel between medical professionals, and ever more grieving families.
I hadn’t realised just how bad it really is. But yesterday, I was in Parliament attending the launch of a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Pancreatic Cancer, and what I heard was so shocking and so sad. It felt important to write something about what I heard in the hope that some good may come of raising awareness.
There were about 100 people yesterday in the Stranger’s Dining Room, with its glorious views over the River Thames. We were each handed our copy of the report and listened to speeches by Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, and to Eric Ollerenshaw MP. The report is depressing in the extreme.
It highlights the same old stories and the same old consequences but it also makes 12 recommendations that could improve the situation – if they were implemented.
The 100 people who had come along have all been touched by pancreatic cancer. They come from all walks of life – the pop stars Suggs was there, as was his fellow musician Bo Bruce. I was there simply to see if something could be done about the terrible, cruel illness which killed my father.
It was shocking to discover just how typical my family’s experiences appear to have been.
All the early symptoms of pancreatic cancer, can and usually are, attributed to something else, unless a GP or consultant thinks about the possibility and acts on it. Forty-nine per cent of GPs questioned, however, said they were less than confident they could or would think about the possibility of pancreatic cancer.
So, as in my father’s case, his symptoms – vague abdominal pains, back pains, anxiety, reflux, were all noted, investigated and dismissed.
There is one particularly poignant paragraph from a consultant in the report that stood out for me: “The patient turns up and the surgeon says well, it’s not reflux and I’m a reflux doctor, so back he goes to the GP..there’s more delay….. and now he’s got back pain…we’ll try the spine doctor..well it’s not spine pain…so back he goes to the GP…”
It stops there. But I can finish it. By then it’s too late because the patient will go yellow because the tumour has grown too big and blocked the bile duct and then its inoperable because the chances are it has spread to the liver. And then it’s just a matter of time….another life is over, young, or old. Cancer is no respecter of age.
Tellingly, the people with this disease who survive for longest periods tend to be medically qualified! Doctors know when something is wrong and are more likely to diagnose without dismissing their symptoms.
Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, was one of the highest profile casualties of pancreatic cancer in recent years. He died from the illness in October 2011, aged just 56.
So please do read the report. Think about it, be aware of it as a possibility, don’t allow your GP to dismiss your concerns out of hand, and put them down to stress as we all did when the medics came up with nothing, thinking nothing could ever affect my dear Dad. Insist on getting checked. Don’t allow delays, kick up a fuss. If you’ve got vague symptoms that don’t go away, please don’t ignore them.
And think about a donation to Pancreatic Cancer UK. It will be very gratefully received.