It was Catherine Graham’s 25th birthday when her dad, Gerard gave her the devastating news, he had pancreatic cancer.
As part of World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month this November, she and other young people who have lost a parent to pancreatic cancer talk to NIPANC about why #TimeMatters when it comes to understanding the symptoms of the disease and seeking early diagnosis and treatment
“My dad’s symptoms were subtle at first. He didn’t notice much initially but then his palate changed. His food tasted metallic and he went off bread. Looking back, that was a tell-tale sign.
My sister was getting married at the time and he had lost weight. We just put that down to the wedding, getting measured for his suit and the fact he wasn’t eating as many carbohydrates.
When he went off bread, something he used to love eating, this was the time when we should have asked more questions.
My dad then developed pain under his rib on the left side of his stomach which felt like muscle strain. Other symptoms included a sharp pain in his back, stomach cramps and a change in toilet habits.
As difficult as it is, I’m speaking about these symptoms as part of local pancreatic cancer charity, NIPANC’s #Time Matters awareness campaign because my dad, Gerard Graham was only 60-years old when he died on August 5 2020.
Pancreatic Cancer is aggressive with a poor survival rate. Surgery is the only option to cure it. I want to say to people, it is so vitally important to understand the symptoms and get tested.
It’s also important for health care professionals to know the signs and really listen to their patients so they can be seen early.
Time really does matter because if the tumours are still small, patients have an increased chance of survival. Unfortunately for our family, it was too late.
I’m 27 now and a primary school teacher working in Belfast. My mum is Margo Graham and I have a sister Laura McMullan.
I went to university in Liverpool and worked over there for a couple of years as a teacher. After daddy got sick, I moved home. I was completing my master’s in educational studies so transferred my credits through to Queen’s University, Belfast.
I love music and am a wedding singer. Dad would always be found singing in the front row along to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’ during any pub gigs I played at.
He had been having pain and weight loss from March 2019 and went to the GP in May who following an OGD (Oesophago-Gastro-Duodenoscopy) treated him for gastritis. It did show inflammation but the tablets did not help so he kept going back.
We thought dad should have a scan but the GP felt at the time it wasn’t needed. We looked to go private but he did eventually get a scan through the NHS. It identified some abnormalities. This led to a CT scan and that’s the point dad was red-flagged.
He was referred to hospital but there was a frustrating and stressful delay of many months before he eventually saw a consultant.
It took seven long months from when the symptoms first started, to getting his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in October followed by treatment in the Cancer Centre in Belfast. It wasn’t possible to operate on his tumour; his only option being palliative chemotherapy.
Then Covid-19 hit. I found this really difficult given how vulnerable he was. Alongside his treatment, we had home visits from staff at the NI Hospice and district nursing team. They were a great support.
I had never heard of pancreatic cancer before but once dad got his diagnosis lots of other people started talking about someone they knew who had died. I understood the outcome wasn’t going to be good for daddy.
My dad trained sheepdogs and represented Ireland in competitions. He was well known in the sheepdog community and could often be found going to see ‘a man about a dog.’ He made an impact on everyone he met often telling jokes and stories. Everyone loved and respected him.
He meant the world to me, mum and Laura and was one of a kind. He loved cooking and entertaining guests. His signature dish was ‘Cantonese Beef’ but he wouldn’t part with the recipe.
It was tough knowing my dad wouldn’t be there for the important milestones in my life such as graduating with a master’s degree, meeting my future family and other special occasions people get to celebrate with their fathers.
For a long time, the pancreatic cancer diagnosis was difficult to accept but dad tried to remain positive and hid most of his pain from his family. He tried to protect us. The painkillers did not take away his pain. He silently suffered but never complained.
We always wonder what might have happened if Dad’s cancer was found earlier. Chemotherapy was harsh on his body and made him sick. He managed 10 rounds but the tumour grew bigger. The treatment stopped and he was given a few months to live. My daddy was going to die.
One of the few benefits of Covid was working from home and caring for dad with my mum. He called me his angel. I would have done anything for him.
He had no appetite so anytime he wanted a certain food we would go to any length to get it. I spent over four months taking care of him, making sure he was warm, farming with him, giving him his medication, cooking with him and spending quality time. I knew I would never get that time to spend with my dad again.
Some good memories include setting off a fire alarm with a sparkler during his 60th birthday, making his favourite cake (black forest gateau) even though he couldn’t eat it. Him giving advice on how to train sheepdogs from his hospital bed. Going down to the river to check the sheep who were in lamb in the winter months.
I remember being out with sheepdogs the day before he went to hospital. The staff who looked after him were wonderful and did what they could to let us see him with all the Covid restrictions in place. One week later, he was gone. Nothing prepares you for the loss of someone you love.
I’m coping with it by trying to stay positive. I have raised over £4,300 for NIPANC during February 2022 with a running challenge.
I take each day as it comes knowing daddy would still be my biggest supporter in life. People, don’t really understand what it’s like to lose a parent at a young age. I’ve always been able to turn to my dad (even when I couldn’t get my car bonnet closed in Liverpool).
What I would say to others is talk to your family member who is sick and tell them how much you love them. Spend time with them doing things you love.
Don’t be afraid to cry or seek help. Others who have been through it may be a great support. Talk about how they would like their life to be celebrated and ensure you support your other family members on this journey together.
The most important message I have is that there is hope but please familiarise yourself with the symptoms of this deadly disease and seek early diagnosis and treatment. That’s when #TimeMatters the most.