Little did County Down woman Barbara Morris know that regularly putting her walking gear on and getting out into the fresh air was a major factor in helping her to survive one of the deadliest diseases, pancreatic cancer.
The 77-year-old, married to husband George (75) for 52-years and mum to grown up children, daughter Emma Rutherford , (51) and Craig (49) from Donaghadee says, her underlying fitness and otherwise good health is a big reason for her still being alive today.
It’s also why her surgeon, Claire Jones thought she was a good candidate for the lifesaving Whipple’s procedure; an operation to treat tumours and other conditions in the pancreas, small intestine, and bile ducts.
Typically, only 1% of people will survive a diagnosis of this disease past ten years and 5% past five years. Many people will present with symptoms when it’s too late and not everyone is suitable for this surgery.
Barbara is telling her survivor story as part of local pancreatic cancer charity NIPANC’s 2023 #TimeMatters campaign, during World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month #WPCAM. It aims to raise awareness about the symptoms of the disease and the life-saving urgency around early diagnosis and treatment.
A recent audit carried out by NIPANC in partnership with the NI Cancer Registry at QUB in partnership with HPB clinical staff in the Belfast Trust revealed 280 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in Northern Ireland and the numbers are increasing. The rise is due to reasons such as increasing age, obesity, and diabetes.
Barbara’s symptoms were typical of pancreatic cancer, some vague like indigestion, others clear warning signs.
She said: “I first noticed something wasn’t right at the end of June 2021. I do a lot of walking and at first, I thought my skin looked a bit tanned. I’m not one for sunbathing though. That was the start of jaundice.
“I also noticed my urine was dark but put that down to vitamins I had been taking. I stopped taking them but there was no improvement in the colour and my stools were pale and floating. I was also losing weight, maybe a stone in just three to four weeks. I was also slowing down and not walking at the pace I had done.”
In the back of her mind, Barbara had a memory of her mother who died when she was just 48 years old. Barbara was just 21 at the time; another young person to lose a parent to this horrific disease.
“My mother died 54 years ago at a very young age. I remember she had pancreas and liver problems, but it wasn’t much talked about then as it is now, but her symptoms and illness came back into my mind and I thought to myself, this is not going to be good.
A major plus in Barbara’s survival was her determination to take immediate action in going to her GP.
She said: “This was around the end of June in 2021. Covid was a complicating factor. It was really difficult to see a GP so when I noticed the discolouration of my urine, I walked down to the surgery, picked up a sample pot, went home, did the necessary and brought it straight back down.
“A phone call from the doctor confirmed they had noticed something irregular, and I was called for blood tests. When I attended that appointment, the receptionist who knew me remarked on how ill I looked and jaundiced. She also noticed the weight loss and called for a doctor to come out and look at me.”
Barbara was given a letter and went straight to A&E in the Ulster Hospital. After scans and further blood tests she was told, a stent was required to by-pass the bile duct.
“I don’t remember anything about that. I was operated on under anaesthetic and kept in for about eight or nine days. A day after the operation, a nurse came in to tell me the doctors would be coming and did I want to get my husband. I was strong enough to hear the news on my own.
“They told me the tumour was in the head of the pancreas, but it was contained and could be operated on. Because of Covid my operation was nine weeks later, and it was to be held in the City Hospital which specialised in the disease.
“During the first operation in September 2021, the surgeons had to close me back up again because the tumour had attached itself to a blood vessel. I had to wait a further six weeks before getting chemotherapy to shrink the tumour. It felt like a lifetime.”
On alternative weekends from November, through to February, Barbara underwent the gruelling treatment which made her so sick she developed sepsis and ended back in hospital where she remained for a week on an intravenous drip of strong antibiotics.
“Following another scan, I was told the tumour had shrunk slightly and I could be operated on four weeks after. That took place in April 2022.”
In hospital Barbara also developed a condition known as delirium; a mental state causing confusion, disorientation and not being able to think or remember clearly.
She said: “It took me a couple of days to understand anything at all, or even to know where I was. I was also in a lot of physical pain. Two weeks after that, I felt a lump on my side. The wound had become infected with an abscess.
“Throughout all of this, I never shed a tear, not when I was diagnosed, or going through chemo or the operations. I was just determined to get better. That involved another two sessions of chemotherapy which I also re-acted really badly to.
“I was just so ill, with sickness, diarrhoea, and vomiting. It was so bad I spent a full week in bed. I was so glad when three weeks later the doctors said they were happy with my scans and the chemo could stop.”
Over a year later, Barbara is currently clear of pancreatic cancer. She returned every three months for additional scans and blood tests. That has been currently reduced to twice a year.
She said: “I’ve kept positive. I love fresh air and walking, and it has stood me in good stead. When I was going through all the tests and physio, I was told for my age, I was very fit. Even after the operation, I would take a walking stick and go out on walks again. I would encourage people to try and keep themselves as fit as they can.
“I’d also tell people, even if they don’t at first want to know about pancreatic cancer, to be familiar with its symptoms. This is lifesaving. I had been taking antacid tablets for my stomach, but the indigestion was not going away. They weren’t working. I had a real burning in my chest, and I knew something just wasn’t right.
“It’s so easy to think that some of the symptoms are something else. I have arthritis so I was putting a lot of the pain I felt down to that. Please don’t delay in seeing your GP. Time really does matter when it comes to pancreatic cancer.
“Be pro-active about getting yourself seen and as early as possible. Apart from delays due to the pandemic, my doctors and surgeons all acted as fast as they could have done under the circumstances, and I was happy with the speed I was referred and treated.”
“I’d also say try to stay positive and determined because I am a living example that you can survive this horrible disease.”
Find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here