Businessman, Tom Hawthorne knows he is lucky to be alive. He has had five heart attacks, suspected lung cancer, diabetes, chemotherapy and is among only five percent of people to survive a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer past five years. Only 1% of people survive past ten.
Tom (66), a self-confessed workaholic, and owner of Lisburn company Plastec NI noticed symptoms six years ago in August 2017 with a dull pain in his stomach and weight loss.
He said: “I knew something was wrong with my stomach. I had been trying to lose weight. I was cycling a lot and had taken up park running and doing really well at it. At my 60th birthday everyone was commenting on how much weight I had lost and how well I looked.”
At the celebration, unbeknown to Tom and his family and friends these were the first sinister signs of pancreatic cancer; a devastating and deadly disease few people survive.
This year, as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month #PCAM, local charity NIPANC is highlighting the stories of pancreatic cancer survivors not only to raise awareness of the symptoms of the disease but to show there is hope and that people can live beyond a diagnosis.
Although new technologies and treatments are on the horizon, still the best way of surviving pancreatic cancer is recognition of its symptoms and early diagnosis and treatment.
Its latest #TimeMatters campaign, not only hopes to raise awareness of the disease among the general public but is also encouraging medical professionals to get to grips with the subtleties of its notoriously difficult to diagnose symptoms.
Tom believes good general fitness and a highly responsive GP were two factors critical to his survival.
“I had taken a pain in my shoulder and couldn’t sleep so went to see Dr McManus who now practices from a Health Centre at Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn. She thought it was a Rotator Cuff problem and I was given a steroid injection. While there, I mentioned a dull pain in my back radiating around to the stomach; a feeling of sickness and knowing something wasn’t right.
“I also mentioned my urine was getting darker, stools paler and they had started to float and become smelly and difficult to flush. I had had these symptoms for about two weeks. I had seen her on the Friday and was called back on Monday morning at the end of August 2017. She asked me if I had been doing anything with my medication because my bloods had been tested five weeks before and the markers were all clear.”
There were three possibilities; a gallbladder or liver problem that could be either removed or treated or pancreatic cancer ‘which is not good.’
From attending his GP on Friday, August 25th, Tom was tested on Monday August 28th, given his results on Tuesday, August 29th, referred to Lagan Valley Hospital the next day for an ultra-sound scan, then a CT scan on Thursday, August 31st in Downpatrick.
A week later Tom was called back to the surgery with a request for his wife to attend and was ‘in bits’ when told he had pancreatic cancer.
In Tom’s case, it took just three weeks from diagnosis to leading pancreatic cancer surgeon, Mr Mark Taylor performing a Whipple’s procedure; a significant operation to treat tumours and other conditions in the pancreas, small intestine, and bile ducts.
The decision to operate was taken on the basis of Tom’s level of fitness and the absence of jaundice; yellowing of the skin; a key pancreatic cancer indicator.
Tom said: “The Whipple procedure was brutal. I was taken to the theatre at 8am in the morning and came around in ICU at 8.30pm that night. The cancer was in the head of the removed pancreas.
“For a few days I couldn’t cope with the pain, felt depressed and was so weak. I had to sit on a chair, then walk around the ward, then corridors and finally got out in about ten days.
“Recovery was slow. I had no strength and for the first time ever I felt depressed. I really urge people to keep themselves fit. Being fit has helped me through some sticky situations. Fitness is a big thing in surviving oncology.”
“When I got home, I was surrounded by friends and family and people from church. I really appreciated that.
“My wonderful GP encouraged me to get back on the bike again and at a time when I could hardly walk but getting out into the fresh air again, I started to see progress and felt much more positive.”
Three months after the operation, Tom was offered chemotherapy to halt further spread of cancer.
“Since the pancreas has been removed, I now have Type 3c Diabetes which means I lack pancreatic enzymes important for digestion. I take Creon, a medication which helps break down and digest fats, starch and proteins in food. It’s a type of enzyme replacement therapy.
“If this wasn’t enough, during a routine check-up CT scan this year, I was also found to have a growth in my lung which was getting bigger. Thankfully, after a further operation it was benign. I’m the very definition of a cat with nine lives.”
“I was so lucky to have such a fantastic GP. My advice is look after your fitness and please, please research the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Be proactive. Don’t wait. Go to your doctor. It’s not going to go away. The earlier you are diagnosed, the better the prognosis.”
Find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here