Senior Nurse, Suzanne Jenkins is joining Pancreatic Cancer UK in highlighting the symptoms of the deadliest common cancer, after her dad, Roderick, died just six months after diagnosis. ‘Roddy’ as he was better known, could only tolerate one round of chemotherapy before he died in 2022 aged 68. Suzanne is sharing his story this November to mark Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to help prevent others from experiencing the heartbreak of a late diagnosis.
Tragically, like Roddy, 80 per cent of people with pancreatic cancer are not diagnosed until after the disease has spread – almost double the proportion for other cancers. This has contributed to pancreatic cancer having the lowest treatment rate (34%) of any common cancer- comparing poorly with treatment rates for breast (86%), bowel (74%) and lung (56%), cancers (1). More than half of people with pancreatic cancer die within three months of diagnosis, making it the deadliest common cancer.
Over Christmas 2021 Roddy began to feel sick and he couldn’t stomach any festive food. Over the next few days, he was still struggling to eat, so he decided to call his doctor before the New Year; he didn’t want to take any chances. He was seen by his GP soon after, who suggested he likely had diabetes.
Senior Mental Health Nurse, Suzanne, 46, said: “They could see abnormalities in the blood test, and they said they’d send him for a scan to check his liver but then they sent him packing with no concrete date or plan. They hadn’t thought it was urgent but within just a couple of days, my dad had deteriorated rapidly, and he was yellow – completely jaundice.”
Suzanne sent her husband, who is also a nurse, a photo of Roddy. He showed the photo to a doctor in A&E who said Roddy needed to get to A&E as soon as possible. Roddy was sent for tests on arrival and the next day he was told that they had found a tumour on his pancreas.
Suzanne said: “We all thought it would be something treatable, like gallstones. Not for one minute did we consider it could be something as horrid and sinister as pancreatic cancer.”
The major cause of late diagnosis is pancreatic cancer’s vague symptoms – such as back pain, indigestion and unexpected weight-loss – because these are also common to many less serious health conditions. With no early detection tools to help them, it is very difficult for GPs to identify who should be urgently referred for scans to confirm or rule out the disease. Like Roddy, nearly half of all pancreatic cancer patients are currently diagnosed via an emergency (such as through visiting A&E) (2).
Initially, Roddy believed that his tumour was treatable, and he was in good spirits. After speaking with his doctors, Suzanne wasn’t given the impression that her dad was terminally ill and although she had read many negative stories online, both her dad and her remained positive he’d be eligible for surgery the only potentially curative treatment. Of the 10,500 people diagnosed annually in the UK just 10% have the operation. (3)
Suzanne said: “My mum was being quite realistic saying, no, he’s never going to be able to have this operation. But my dad and I, we were in a different place. I’ll always remember the day my dad travelled to London for assessments prior to surgery. When he returned, the colour had drained out of him completely. He wasn’t eligible for surgery. Finding this out was easily the worst part.”
Roddy’s consultant had been hopeful that chemotherapy may shrink the tumour, putting surgery back on the table but this hope was short-lived. Roddy was only able to handle one round of chemo as it made him so unwell that he was rushed back to hospital. Palliative care was the only option left. By March 2022, Suzanne, and her mum organised district nurses to come to their home and they set up a hospital bed downstairs.
Suzanne said: “He was very frail and had barely eaten anything in three months – he was living off supplements – but he was able to walk to the shops. He didn’t need to use the hospital bed in the lounge until Saturday the 23rd of July, which is when he went downhill very, very quickly. I was called over as he had become really agitated on the Saturday night. He passed not long after.”
This Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Pancreatic Cancer UK wants people to familiarise themselves with pancreatic cancer, the symptoms to be aware of, and the impact it can have on people diagnosed and their families. It is calling on the public to have conversations with friends, family, and colleagues about the deadliest common cancer, in the hopes that it could prevent a late diagnosis in the future.
Suzanne said: “There should be more training for staff around symptoms of pancreatic cancer and awareness is needed for the wider public as that’s the only way it will be detected early enough to save or extend lives. More needs to be done. I know it’s too late for my dad, but I do feel optimistic that things can change for the better for other people.”
Pancreatic Cancer UK recommends that anyone experiencing one or more of the most common symptoms – back pain, indigestion, tummy pain and weight-loss – for more than four weeks should contact their GP. Anyone with jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin) should immediately go to A&E. Early diagnosis is crucial in improving both survival and quality of life.
Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said:
“Tragically, for thousands of people each year their pancreatic cancer goes undetected until after it is too late to save them. Early diagnosis is vitally important to giving those with this devastating disease the best possible chance of survival, more so than with any other common cancer.
“That’s why for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month this November, we are urging the public to learn more about the disease, to talk to their loved ones and, if they have persistent symptoms, not to put off seeing their GP.
“We do not want people to panic if they have some or all these symptoms. They are also shared by many other less serious health conditions and most people experiencing them will not have pancreatic cancer. Yet awareness is worryingly low, and while our teams of worldclass researchers continue to develop the early detection tools desperately needed by doctors, we need the public’s help to breakthrough the silence around the deadliest common cancer in the UK.”
The charity runs the Pancreatic Cancer UK Support Line, which is staffed entirely by specialist nurses and is open to anyone affected by pancreatic cancer – including family and friends. All calls are free and confidential. For more information visit: www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/support