When Kat Fraser’s mother Angela was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Kat’s daughter, Ella, 11, remarked, “at least it’s not breast cancer”.
Only 11 percent of people with pancreatic cancer do, giving it the worst survival rate of any cancer.
Mrs Fraser, 41, who works in health, admitted she too also knew little about it before her beloved mum was diagnosed in 2017.
Once she found out, she told her daughter she wished her mother had breast cancer instead.
The teacher’s aid and grandmother of four, from Hobart, Tasmania had always been healthy, travelling to her native Colombia and going on regular bushwalks, when she developed a pain in her side.
Doctors had given her anti-inflammatories, and tests had shown nothing wrong.
“They told her to ease off the bushwalking a little bit,” Mrs Fraser, said.
But the pain got worse, and she also felt bloated and sick
One day, urged by her daughter, she returned to her GP, and was sent to hospital.
“Mum was always so strong and had such a pain tolerance,” Mrs Fraser, said.
“She said ‘I can’t even bend over to put on my trousers without crying, it hurts so much.”
More tests also failed to find the answer, and it wasn’t until a surgeon operated for what he thought could be gallstones, that the cancer was found.
It was a sudden blow for the family, with Mrs Fraser, admitting she barely knew what the pancreas was or what it did.
“We were not expecting it to be a cancer diagnosis,” she said.
“It wasn’t until the surgeon said the life expectancy is really low that we started looking into it – we had no idea. “
The outlook was grim, though the family were led to believe surgery might be possible, Mrs Fraser, 71, died, a year to the month after her diagnosis.
A total of 88 per cent of people thought breast cancer was the biggest killer, the charity found, when it’s actually down the list, at fifth.
And more than half surveyed didn’t know the pancreatic cancer symptoms, which include stomach pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, weight loss and changed bowel motions.
“The signs and symptoms are so vague that it could be a lot of things,” Mrs Fraser said.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what we went through, have someone that they love be diagnosed and die within a year, or earlier.
“I want to raise awareness so people can have an idea around what to look out for – and if we can raise awareness we can raise funds for research.”
The reason pancreatic cancer is so deadly is because it’s diagnosed too late, experts say, which also means research on improving survival can be hard.
“Often when a patient is diagnosed, they are close to death,” Michelle Stewart, CEO of PanKind, said.
“This is largely because most patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already progressed too far for existing treatments to work.
“While many more people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, more people die of pancreatic cancer due to a huge difference in survival rates.
“There is a huge gap in awareness, attention and understanding that needs to be addressed.”
The cause attracts little funding compared with many other cancers.
Plus, PanKind has launched an Early Detection Initiative, working with researchers to improve early diagnosis.
A total of $465,000 will fund two new projects and the aim is to triple survival rates by 2030.
An Australian Government Health spokesman said $42.8 million has been spent on pancreatic cancer research between 2013 and 2020.
“Cancer Australia is leading the development of a National Pancreatic Cancer Roadmap,” a spokesman, said.
“The Roadmap will identify priority areas for action over the next five years to improve outcomes for people with pancreatic cancer.
“It will consider all aspects of the cancer pathway, including research, prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and supportive and palliative care.”
Pancreatic cancer survival rate
- Pancreatic cancer is the 8th most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia – but the third most deadly.
- It kills around 3300 people a year, with 4,261 people expected to be diagnosed in 2021.
- The chance of surviving at least five years is 11 per cent – the worst for any cancer – compared with 69 per cent for cancers overall.
- Lung cancer remains Australia’s most common cause of cancer death.
- The pancreas is near the stomach and makes digestive enzymes and hormones.