It took over six months to diagnose my pancreatic cancer
Around one in three pancreatic cancer patients visits the GP three or more times before being referred to a specialist. Chris edmonds was one of them
one woman shares her experience
Chris, 64, from Warwickshire, is married with two children and two grandchildren, and works as an educational consultant.
the first symptom, in summer
2014, was a “fluttering” below my right rib. i didn’t dwell on it as i was busy with preparations for my daughter naomi’s wedding, husband Graham’s milestone birthday and an Ofsted inspection. ironically, my brother-in-law, dave, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier and had only months to live. But i’d always been healthy.
the symptoms persisted and by October i’d begun to experience discomfort across my back. i saw the GP, who didn’t think it much to worry about, but did a blood test and prescribed a reflux medicine, saying if this didn’t help within a fortnight to come back. i went back, this time seeing a locum who ordered an ultrasound scan. while waiting for the scan, my symptoms became worse with sensations that i can only describe as like trapped wind in my upper back, especially at night. i had the scan but there was too much gas in my abdomen for the pancreas to be seen properly.
Back at the surgery a third time, i was referred to a gastroenterologist. i’d begun to suspect pancreatic cancer, but it seemed too much of a coincidence with dave. the consultant didn’t seem unduly concerned and said to return after Christmas if there was no improvement, when a Ct scan could be arranged.
Over Christmas, the whole family had a vicious stomach bug so i attributed the diarrhoea i’d now developed to that.
Finally, in February, i had the Ct scan. two days later, i got a call asking me to see the gastroenterologist that evening. My worst fears were realised: it was pancreatic cancer.
i grabbed Graham’s hand. we both knew the statistics only too well. eight out of ten patients are not diagnosed until the cancer is at an advanced stage, meaning surgery is not an option. And only 20% of those diagnosed survive one year or more, while less than 7% survive five years, figures that have barely shifted in 40 years. i couldn’t bear that my lovely husband, having just lost his brother, was now facing losing his wife. Our daughter, naomi, had just told us she was expecting our first grandchild. it should have been a joyous time, but instead i was having to break it to our children that i might not survive the year.
i was referred to Queen elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, where i learnt that my tumour was entangled around two major blood vessels – meaning i was unsuitable for surgery. But the news >>
The consultant didn’t seem concerned
wasn’t all bad. Just two years earlier, nothing could have been done. But now there was Folfirinox, a combination of four chemotherapy medications, which might shrink the tumour to the point where surgery might be an option. But, i was warned, it can cause severe side effects – so is only an option for people who are otherwise fit and well. Luckily, i fitted the bill.
i started chemo in march 2015 and didn’t feel sick, lose all my hair or my appetite. By June, the tumour had shrunk and the doctors thought they could operate. By this time my son, nicholas, 33, was engaged to his fiancée, Katharine, 30, and had hastily arranged a July wedding, hoping i would still be alive. after more chemotherapy to prevent the tumour growing back, i was able to be there. it was a wonderful occasion and i danced until midnight.
two weeks later, i was admitted for the long and complex whipple procedure – the most common operation for pancreatic cancer. it involves removing the head (wide part) of the pancreas, the gall bladder, the duodenum (first part of the small intestine), a small portion of stomach called the pylorus, and lymph nodes near the head of the pancreas. the surgeon then reconnects the remaining pancreas and digestive organs.
i was expecting to lose my pancreas, possibly my gall bladder and definitely my spleen. i knew, too, that removing the pancreas, which controls insulin and blood glucose, can trigger diabetes. But they discovered the tumour had shrunk – so incredibly only part of my pancreas was removed and no other organs. today, although lth ugh i have a replumbed digestive system and have to take pancreatic enzymes to enable digestion, i don’t have diabetes, and feel well. i swim, walk my beloved dog and am getting back into yoga. i had a check-up two months ago and the signs are so encouraging that i now only need check-ups once a year.
with hindsight, i realise i had not been “me” for some time and should have persisted in conveying that from the outset. my message to other women? Listen to your body – if you have unusual symptoms, seek medical advice.
Chris Edmonds still leads a normal life
Happy families, Chris at son Nicholas’s wedding; with granddaughter Jessica