Losing weight, diarrhoea and loss of appetite are symptoms associated with a number of common health issues, and may not cause alarm for many but did for me when I suddenly started experiencing them in the summer of 2007. After several visits to the GP, I was told that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome – but that diagnosis wasn’t good enough for me.
I pestered my GP to refer me to a specialist after I was prescribed painkillers that didn’t ease the mid-back pain that I was experiencing. But when the pain shifted round to my ribcage, I fast-tracked myself, with the help of a locum GP and my husband’s private medical insurance, to a specialist who arranged for me to have a scan.
This saved my life. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was absolutely devastating, but I was very lucky to be diagnosed early enough to have surgery that would increase my chances of surviving the disease. Life-saving treatment may not have been an option if my scan was delayed to the following week but here I am, 10 years on.
Pancreatic cancer is so aggressive that early diagnosis and treatment are essential. Yet very few people are aware of the signs and risks so early detection is extremely uncommon. I was stunned to hear that for nearly my entire lifetime, treatment options and diagnostic tools have remained relatively unchanged.
More than 90% of the population knows little to nothing about pancreatic cancer and its symptoms. I was one of those people. I hadn’t even heard about it until the consultant surgeon sat me down on August 30, 2007 to tell me I had a tumour in the body of my pancreas, and that I needed surgery as soon as possible. It seemed impossible to all of us. I was 41 and otherwise healthy. I didn’t smoke. I drank in moderation. I was not a candidate for pancreatic cancer and the diagnosis wasn’t even considered by any general practitioner I saw.
It wasn’t until after the surgery – which removed my spleen, part of my pancreas and affected lymph nodes – that I understood that only one in 10 patients with this diagnosis can be operated on at all. Even fewer survive the first five years.
A slow diagnosis delays patient’ referrals to the right specialists, which is crucial. I would advise anyone with symptoms not normal for them to be persistent. The speed of my diagnosis meant it was still possible to remove the tumour followed by chemotherapy.
I have made it my mission to help others survive. I founded Pancreatic Cancer Action to ensure more are diagnosed sooner by raising awareness of the disease, funding research into early diagnosis, and pushing for greater investment into research, to discover more treatment options for those who are diagnosed.
Ali Stunt, founder and CEO, Pancreatic Cancer Action