By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News
Pancreatic cancer has one of the poorest survival rates of all cancers.
It is the fourth or fifth commonest cancer in the UK – but only one in five of those diagnosed are considered for surgery.
More than 97% of people in the UK diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within five years, more than 80% within one year.
Medical experts say there are a number of reasons for this, but ignorance plays a big part.
Mr Andreas Prachalias, consultant liver transplant hepato-biliary and pancreatic surgeon at King’s College Hospital, London, said not only were people unaware of the symptoms, many were unaware of where their pancreas was or its purpose.
"The pancreas is not on the public consciousness," he said.
"If people learnt to spot the symptoms, it might help."
The pancreas is a tadpole-shaped organ, which sits behind the stomach.
"I began noticing some odd symptoms, including dark coloured urine and the fact that even the smallest amount of alcohol made me very sick"
It helps with the digestion process and also produces insulin, which balances the sugar level in the blood.
Thomas Brodie, 77, from London, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March. He needed surgery and is now having chemotherapy.
Luckily Mr Brodie, a former civil servant in the Department of Health, is very body aware after having prostate cancer and noticed his symptoms.
"I began noticing some odd symptoms, including dark coloured urine and the fact that even the smallest amount of alcohol made me very sick," he said.
He also became jaundiced.
"I thought it was potentially serious," he said.
"I knew in some cases it could be operated on, and that in others it could not. I had to wait for the specialist view to discover the extent of the illness.
"I acted very quickly and the doctor had the results of the test the same day. The speed with which things moved forward was remarkable."
Mr Brodie is convinced it was this speed that saved his life.
"I would urge anyone with similar symptoms to contact their GP as soon as possible," he said.
Mr Prachalias said that because the disease was "often silent" it was difficult to know how to protect people.
"With more aggressive surgeries, increased awareness and early referrals at King’s we have been able to increase the resection rate to 30 to 35%. But it is still very low."
A resection is an operation to remove part of the pancreas, the gall bladder, some of the bile ducts and a piece of the small bowel – the national average resection rate is 20%.
Mr Prachalias said screening was not considered viable, because although those aged above 55 were more vulnerable, it could affect others.
But he said raising public consciousness was still one of the best weapons.
Daisylin Brown, a hepato-pancreatic-biliary clinical nurse specialist at King’s, with a particular interest in pancreas and biliary tumours, said: "Pancreatic cancers frequently have few symptoms until the disease has already progressed to an advanced stage.
"To make matters worse, the early symptoms associated with the disease, such as abdominal pain, irregular bowel movements or jaundice, are easily mistaken for other conditions, making it much harder to diagnose the cancer effectively and quickly.
"At King’s, we work with specialists across many departments, including endocrinology, hepatology, oncology and radiology, and in different hospitals, as well as with support from other organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Care.SYMPTOMS
- General discomfort or pain around the stomach area
- Sickness, bowel disturbances and loss of appetite
- Diabetes and unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice, low mood and depression
- Itchy skin and back pain
"This ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach is a vital part of helping us to diagnose and treat our patients as quickly as possible, before their disease progresses too far."
Pancreatic Cancer UK agreed that action needed to be taken.
A spokesman said: "These are not only tragic but shocking statistics in this day and age when we are making such inroads into cancer research and medical science.
"One of the reasons for this is that pancreatic cancer is so difficult to detect early enough – symptoms are vague and unspecific and often by the time they are picked up it is too late.
"We still need much more funding and awareness raising to make any impact on these death rates, which have not changed for the last 40 years."</p
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