EARLY DETECTION OF PANCREATIC CANCER PROBABLY SAVED MY LIFE
“When they came and told me it was pancreatic cancer, I thought that was the end,” says 60-year-old Robert Slaven from Scotland. But with an early diagnosis, made possible by medical technology, Robert is now looking forward to getting on with his life.
Robert’s journey started in the first half of 2020. “I felt quite nauseated, which was very unlike me: I am never unwell,” Robert tells This Is MedTech.
When he contacted his GP, he was prescribed antacids. But as Robert’s nausea persisted, his GP ordered blood and urine tests to find out more.
“My liver function results were all over the place,” Robert recalls. “I was referred with immediate effect to the local hospital.”
At that stage Robert had no symptoms other than very bad nausea. But within a couple of days he started showing early signs of jaundice, with yellowing of his eyes and skin.
“I could see that I was yellow, but I still didn’t really feel any worse,” Robert says. But repeated liver function tests showed his condition was gradually worsening, and his doctors turned again to medical technology to find out why. Robert first had computerised tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which produce detailed images of the inside of the body. He went on to have an endoscopy, which allowed his doctors to investigate further and take a biopsy: a small sample of cells to be checked for cancer.
“They found a mass at the top of the pancreas and told me it was cancer,” Robert says. “I thought the world had ended. But when I spoke to the consultant later on that day he advised there were a few different routes they could go down.”
Medical technology not only gave Robert an early diagnosis but also guided the best treatment option. “On the basis of what they had seen, and after talking to the oncologist, it looked like I was eligible for a Whipple operation,” Robert explains, referring to surgery to remove the head of the pancreas, as well as all or parts of other surrounding organs, including the first part of the small intestine and the gallbladder. Robert also had chemotherapy before and after the operation. “I wanted hope, and I think that is what I got,” he says.
Although Robert is still recovering from his treatment – particularly his chemotherapy, which he describes as “a hard, hard road” – he is thankful for his early diagnosis. Vague symptoms often make pancreatic cancer difficult to diagnose in the early stages. According to Pancreatic Cancer UK*, around 80% of those with pancreatic cancer are not diagnosed until the cancer is at an advanced stage when surgery – the only known treatment that has the potential to cure the disease – is usually not possible.
Efforts are therefore ongoing to further develop the tools and knowledge needed to diagnose people faster and at an earlier stage. Sharing his story during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Robert sums up the value of early diagnosis. “It’s a miracle: the GP doing the blood tests so early on and then finding there was something wrong. It probably saved my life,” he says.