Strabane farmer William Sproule’s hard graft out in the green fields of the Sperrin Mountains rearing beef and dairy cattle is a contributory factor why he survived a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. The 79-year-old, who still farms to this day and doesn’t drink, or smoke is generally a fit and strong man.
This is a a primary reason why his surgeon, Mr Tom Diamond thought he 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. William is among only 1% of people to survive a diagnosis of this deadly disease past ten years.
William is telling his survivor story as part of local pancreatic cancer charity NIPANC’s 2023 #TimeMatters campaign which, as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month #PCAM, 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 in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with the disease each year in Northern Ireland and the numbers are increasing.
William, who has been raising cattle since he was eight, with a farming background going back seven generations, uses a sileage and slurry analogy to describe his first symptom of the ‘Silent Killer’ pancreatic cancer.
He said: “It was the middle of September in 2013, I first noticed my urine was dark. It was a darkish brown like the liquid you would see seeping out of sileage. I had no other pains or aches, so I ignored it for a while maybe for a fortnight or three weeks, but it was getting worse, so I went to my GP at the Family Practice, Strabane.”
William was seen by Doctor Carey who thought William’s bile duct was blocked. By that stage he had developed jaundice, another tell-tale sign of pancreatic cancer and was fast-tracked for an appointment at hospital in Omagh just four days later at the beginning of October.
At that stage, he nor his wife Pearl (74) had any idea William had the devastating illness. They had never heard of this type of cancer before or knew of anyone who had it. ‘We were just green, naïve about it,’ Pearl said.
Following an MRI and CT scan, William was immediately referred to see a consultant at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry where it was decided to insert a stent to clear the jaundice.
William said: “I was kept in overnight. My blood pressure started coming down and by the Friday morning, the yellowness and urine all started improving. I thought I was cured but Dr Ferguson asked me to attend his outpatients’ surgery the following Tuesday and asked me to bring my wife. I was just told I was going for an operation in Belfast. At that stage, I knew I had cancer but not what type.”
“I was seen on November 4th, by Mr Tom Diamond who told me I would be operated on two weeks later at the Mater Hospital on November 18th. He gave me a leaflet. I was shocked to read it, but Mr Diamond felt I was a good candidate for the Whipple procedure because I was otherwise fit and healthy.”
Pearl said: “We didn’t know what to feel or what was ahead of us. William didn’t want to tell anybody about it. Following the stent, he had no pain or ache, absolutely nothing and looked the picture of health. He almost didn’t go but was persuaded to by our minister, Reverend Mark Lennox from Christ Church, Strabane.”
On the day of the operation, William and Pearl kept the news from their three grown children, Heather Sproule-Foy, Elaine McKenna, and Billy Sproule that their father would be operated on for an hour before it could be determined whether the surgery would be successful.
Pearl said: “He went to theatre around 1pm and came round after 6pm in intensive care. I remember thinking to myself, the longer this is going on the better. Mr Diamond said the surgery had gone well and to go to Intensive Care. William lifted his mask and asked how it had gone. We gave him the thumbs up.”
“William was very weak after surgery but a very determined man to get better. He’s not a man to lie down. He got up and pushed himself. He was due to be in hospital for a fortnight but got out in ten days. He’s not a man for pity.”
Six months of chemotherapy at home followed before William was back out farming in March and April 2014. Since then, he has survived Prostrate Cancer in 2018, 39 sessions of radiotherapy, a mini-stroke and a broken wrist but is back and fighting fit once again.
He said: “I could not have got treatment any quicker than I did and was really happy with the speed I was diagnosed. There were no delays. That’s thanks to all those people who were involved in my treatment. Dr Carey said in her 25-years of practicing medicine, she had rarely come across pancreatic cancer.
“If I had one message to give to the public and to GP’s now that I am more aware of and have survived pancreatic cancer is to know the symptoms and don’t delay like I did in going to get treatment. I know how lucky I am to be alive and that’s down to being diagnosed and treated on time. I’d like to thank everyone involved in my care.”
Pancreatic Cancer Surgeon, Mr Tom Diamond, now retired and President of NIPANC said: “William’s story illustrates the importance of seeking medical advice even for very early subtle symptoms such as change in his urine. Particularly important symptoms in relation to early detection of pancreatic cancer are a change in urine colour, often described as tea-coloured, difficult to flush lighter coloured bowel movements and yellowing in the eyes and skin which is jaundice.”
Find out more about the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here