Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK, killing nearly 9,000 people annually. The average life expectancy is four to six months. Only three per cent of those diagnosed with the illness survive for five years. To put these figures into perspective, consider that the average five-year survival rate for breast cancer, for example, is 87 per cent.


Not a silent killer


“Many people think that pancreatic cancer is a silent killer, but it’s not,” says Ms Stunt. “In fact, it can be a very symptomatic disease. Patients can have abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, dark urine and yellow skin and eyes. In addition, because the pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes, they may not be able to get nutrition from their food. Other potential symptoms include back pain, appetite loss, nausea and vomiting.”


Difficult to diagnose


The problem is that the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often mistaken for those of other disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, for example. So, the diagnosis is difficult to make. Yet, it is important.

Ms Stunt explains: “The only treatment option for people with pancreatic cancer is surgery. So, it’s vital that they get diagnosed in time for it. This increases their chances of survival tenfold. But often they are not referred to a specialist for further tests, or they may be sent for the wrong test, such as a colonoscopy instead of an internal examination of the pancreas, because cancer is not suspected. We know that some will visit their GP an average of at least four times, before they get a referral to a specialist.”


Management challenges


The management of pancreatic cancer is equally challenging. Because there is no cure for the illness, treatment is usually aimed at controlling symptoms.

“The management of pain can be particularly problematic,” notes Ms Stunt. “Patients may also need enzyme supplements, to help them get nourishment from their food and avoid losing weight. These supplements contain pancreatin – a mixture of chemical compounds that help the digestion of sugars, proteins and fats.”


Uphill struggle


 Ms Stunt continues: “Unfortunately, public awareness of the condition is dire. A survey by Pancreatic Cancer Action showed that 87 per cent of the UK population does not know where the pancreas is in the body, and that 57 per cent of those with the illness have never heard of it before their diagnosis. We are clearly facing an uphill struggle.


Taking action


“What can we do about it? We can increase knowledge of the disease among the public and healthcare professionals. To this aim, Pancreatic Cancer Action developed a learning tool in collaboration with the Royal College of GPs, to help doctors understand the diagnosis of the illness in primary care.

“However, we also need to improve outcomes for people with the disease, for example by increasing the number of those involved in clinical trials, so that more treatments can be properly evaluated and brought to patients.”

Currently, only seven per cent of affected people in the UK are in clinical trials, and there are only a few drugs in the pipeline for the advanced form of the disease, which 80 per cent of all patients have at diagnosis.

“We desperately need to get any sort of therapy assessed in studies, and to increase collaboration at an international level, in order to expand access to clinical trials, beyond those taking place in the UK,” says Ms Stunt.

Indeed, research is the gateway to widening treatments options and consequently improving survival. Yet, pancreatic cancer receives only one per cent of the total budget for research, according to data from the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI).

“Lastly, there should be faster referrals for diagnostic tests, including the ability for GPs to order a CT scan when pancreatic cancer is suspected, without the need for patients to see a specialist. Currently, only specialists have access to CT scans,” concludes Ms Stunt.