I was told my stomach pain was indigestion. In fact, it was a lethal cancer
23:01 GMT, 26 November 2012
02:23 GMT, 27 November 2012
Dane Wilde went to bed on Saturday, July 23, last year a happy and — he thought — healthy man. The 49-year-old managing director, who ran his own shop-fitting company, ate well, drank moderately, exercised and didn’t smoke.
But the next morning he developed severe abdominal pain. It turned out to be a form of cancer that few people survive because it’s detected too late.
‘As usual, I got up early with my two small daughters, Madeleine, then six, and Olivia, three,’ he recalls. ‘I felt fine. But when I drank my morning coffee, I suddenly got a dull pain in my stomach, wrapping around to my back. It got worse with every sip.
Determined: Dane with wife Charlotte and daughters Madeleine (left) and Olivia. He has recovered from pancreatic cancer
‘I tried to ignore it, but by the afternoon it was crippling, so I went to the on-call GP. He diagnosed indigestion and sent me off with some tablets, but I instinctively knew it was more serious than that.’
The next morning, Dane went to his regular GP and was sent straight to hospital for blood tests. ‘Scans picked up nothing, so they diagnosed pancreatitis [an inflamed pancreas] and advised me to abstain from alcohol for a month and eat less processed food.
‘I was surprised by this, as I drink very little and eat only fresh food. I was generally very healthy, and had never even smoked.’
A week later, Dane went on holiday with his family to Crete.
‘I was no longer in pain, but started having bouts of diarrhoea. My wife, Charlotte, was concerned, but I put it down to foreign food.’
However, just before the end of the holiday, Dane’s skin started going yellow, as did the whites of his eyes, and he developed an unbearable itch on the back of his hands that gradually spread to his entire body. Although he didn’t realise this at the time, these are all classic signs of jaundice.
‘Charlotte and I went on the internet for an explanation. We both sat browsing on our computers, and kept repeatedly returning the same result: pancreatic cancer.
‘We cried a lot that night, desperately hoping there would turn out to be another explanation. Cancer is bad enough, but the prognosis for pancreatic cancer is appalling. Just 4 per cent of people survive for five years.’
The pancreas sits behind the stomach. About 15cm long and shaped like a leaf, it produces digestive enzymes to help break down food, as well as insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, because the pancreas is deep inside the body, this means problems with it are difficult to spot.
‘Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates because it is usually quite advanced by the time it’s diagnosed,’ says Richard Charnley, a consultant pancreatic surgeon at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.
‘A pancreatic tumour can’t be seen or felt — like a breast lump, for example — and it doesn’t tend to cause symptoms until it presses on or blocks something.’
An ADDED problem is that when symptoms do appear, they overlap with many benign conditions, such as gallstones or indigestion, so it’s easily misdiagnosed.
The most common symptoms are stomach pain, jaundice, weight loss, loss of appetite, bowel problems and back pain (all often the result of a tumour pressing on or blocking internal organs).
‘Thirty per cent of cases are caused by smoking,’ says Mr Charnley.
Other risks include a diet that is high in processed meat, and being overweight (though doctors are unclear why this should increase the risk). It can also be genetic (one in ten cases) or linked to medical conditions such as diabetes. It’s more common in older people, with 80 per cent of cases occurring in over-60s.
When Dane returned home, he went straight to his GP, who immediately sent him to hospital again.
asked if she thought it was pancreatic cancer, but she said I was too
young for that and it could be a number of other things,’ says Dane. ‘By
this point, I was very yellow, still itching and having almost constant
diarrhoea.’ Various tests showed only irregularities in enzyme levels.
‘The consultant concluded that I must have a blockage or narrowing in
the duct between the gallbladder and pancreas that was causing these
enzymes to build up.’
Doctors decided to insert a tiny metal tube called a stent to widen or unblock this duct. This was done in early September, but a week later his blood enzymes were irregular again, and another, larger stent was fitted.
Dane continued to insist it was pancreatic cancer. ‘I never get ill, and just knew it was serious,’ he says. ‘However, the doctors had to rule out all the other things it could be before they got to cancer.’
Then, at the end of September, more than two months after his symptoms had started, he had what he thought was a routine appointment with a surgeon who specialised in pancreatic conditions.
‘I just thought it was to discuss my symptoms, so my wife didn’t come with me,’ says Dane. ‘The surgeon sat me down and said that my blood results showed no cancer markers, but, on the basis of my continuing symptoms, he believed I had a cancerous tumour on the junction of my bile duct and pancreas.’
Mr Charnley says blood results will quite often come back negative for cancer markers, as pancreatic tumours sometimes release very low levels of the proteins that the test is looking for. Scans do not always pick up tumours either, depending on size and location. The drive home to tell his wife was full of mixed emotions for Dane. ‘I was in shock, despite having always believed it was cancer, and started making plans for after my death.
‘I thought about phoning a florist to arrange flowers to be delivered to my wife on our wedding anniversaries, and making video messages for my children to watch when they got older.
‘But by the time I got home, I had decided it wasn’t my time to die, and I still had so much to live for. I was determined to fight it with everything I had.
‘Even so, when I told Charlotte, we both broke down in tears.’
Dane didn’t want to keep it from his children (he also has three sons, aged 18, 21 and 25 from a previous marriage). ‘But I tried to be upbeat by telling them I was going to get better, so they stayed pretty positive throughout.’ Dane was one of the fortunate 20 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients eligible for surgery.
‘For many patients, because it usually presents so late, the tumour has often infiltrated a major blood vessel or spread to other organs, such as the liver or lungs, making surgery impossible or of no benefit,’ says Mr Charnley.
On October 25, Dane kissed his two little girls goodbye and his wife drove him to hospital.
He underwent an operation called Whipple’s procedure, the most common type of pancreatic surgery, which involves removing the top of the pancreas (which is where most pancreatic cancer is found), along with part of the small intestine, the gall bladder and part of the bile duct, and sometimes part of the stomach.
Because the pancreas is so near to all of these organs, the risk of spread is high, so they are removed to give the best chance of survival.
The remaining section of the pancreas is reconnected to the small intestine, so pancreatic enzymes and bile can still be released into the digestive system. Surgeons try to avoid removing the whole pancreas, as this leaves a patient diabetic.
‘My surgery took 11 hours and I woke up in intensive care with a 45cm (18in) wound along my rib cage,’ says Dane. ‘My surgeon came to see me and delivered the good news that he had successfully removed a tumour, and there was no visible sign the cancer had spread.’
Six weeks later, Dane started a six-month course of chemotherapy to ensure that all the cancerous cells were destroyed.
‘It was gruelling,’ he recalls. ‘By the third cycle of treatment, I was totally fatigued, my hair had thinned and I had numbness in my legs, but I was happy to be alive.’
Having made it through six cycles, Dane is one of the lucky few to survive a year after diagnosis. Just 18 per cent make it to this landmark.
But despite being the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK, it receives just 1 per cent of spending on cancer research. The charity Pancreatic Cancer UK has recently launched a campaign called Raise for Research, aiming to increase investment and raise the profile of this terrible disease.
One year after his operation, Dane has been told there is currently no sign of cancerous cells.
‘I’m now working at putting weight back on and getting fit again,’ he says. ‘I’ve raised 4,000 so far for a fundraising walk this month. I’m determined to be one of the 4 per cent that make it past five years. I wake up every day grateful that I’m still here.’
For more information or support, visit pancreaticcancer.org.uk or call 020 3535 7099.