Every year 720 New Zealanders are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and over 600 families lose a loved one to this disease.
This Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month we want to Shine a Light on just a few of the stories told by those fighting their personal pancreatic cancer battle, and those who have lost someone dear to them.
Unlike many, Sandy knew about pancreatic cancer before she was diagnosed. Her father passed away from the disease in 2000 and before that, her grandfather. This is her story.
Sandy thought she knew the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer but hers were very different to her fathers. Rapid weight loss, a sore abdomen and loss of appetite took him to the doctor where they discovered a late-stage tumor. It wasn’t until they went to operate that they saw the tumor was in a position which made it inoperable.
Sandy has led a healthy and active life. A regular gym goer, it was a back pain in 2019 that first took her to the doctor. “I likened it to having a thick belt tightly around my mid back” she says. When blood tests came back clear, she was referred to a physiotherapist
Another 9 months passed with the physiotherapy having made no impact on the back pain, she went back to the doctor, this time a locum who reviewed her family history, did an abdomen exam, and insisted she go for an ultrasound immediately. At 3pm the same day, she was called in and told she had pancreatic cancer.
Her tumor was blocking the bile duct and she quickly got jaundice and getting too close to sepsis, so an emergency stent was put in prior to undergoing Whipple surgery in March 2020 followed by 6 months of chemotherapy.
In December 2020, Sandy was told that she was classified as cancer-free (in remission) and for the past two and a half years has been monitored closely. Sometime between her February and September scans, the cancer returned to her lungs. “When you go through the diagnosis, chemotherapy, and the side effects, mentally you are conditioned to the understanding that there is potential for it to come back. With the low 5-year survival rate, you hope that you can beat the odds. I was shocked to hear it, and now I need to get an understanding of what my treatment options are".
It was during her cancer journey that she connected with a long-time industry colleague, Carmen, who told her about the PanCan Gala and as a result of their conversation Sandy joined the Gala organising committee.
The PanCan Gala is New Zealand’s first event dedicated to raising funds for research and awareness of pancreatic cancer. “The silent killer. My wish for the use of funds is for ongoing research and clinical trials. As technologies develop, we must keep committing to better results for our future generations, we need to change the outcomes.” Sandy goes on to say “There needs to be a much higher level of public and GP awareness – that is where the quicker wins will be. Catching it much earlier will enable people to live their fullest lives”.
Sandy has a message for others: “The most important thing is to be an advocate for your own health, even if your GP knows you well, ensure they are aware of your family history. Tell them you want more tests if something doesn’t add up. If there is no obvious cause for a symptom, push for answers. And learn about symptoms, Awareness could save your life. If there is a history of a particular type of cancer, ask about your options for genetic screening. That can help future generations”.