I was exhausted.
It was Christmas Day 2021, and I woke up not feeling right, too tired to do anything. I was used to being knackered from being a busy nurse and mum of two young children, but this was different.
Any other day, I would have stayed in bed, but I pulled myself up and managed to watch the children, Jacob, nine, and Georgie, eight, excitedly open their presents. As the morning went on, I felt progressively worse and by lunchtime I just couldn’t stand up anymore and I had to go to bed.
To this day, my daughter Georgie recalls this as the start of me being unwell. I’ve heard her say, ‘That’s when mummy started to feel ill, she didn’t even eat her Christmas dinner.’
I was in bed all of Boxing Day too. I managed to get up and have a shower, and when I emerged, not feeling any better, my husband looked at me and said: ‘Becki, you look like a Minion.’
I just replied: ‘Thank you, I love you too!’ – thinking he was joking, but I turned to look in the mirror and he was right. I was jaundiced and had gone yellow.
This is when my panic set in. Knowing that jaundice in adults can be a sign of a serious underlying condition from my years as a nurse, I sought medical help immediately.
I managed to get in touch with an on-call doctor and I was told to go to a surgical assessment unit as soon as I could. My blood tests revealed high levels in my bilirubin (causing the jaundice), ALT and ALP (suggesting liver problems) which needed further investigating.
Having seen blood tests similar to this and their eventual outcomes in the past, it’s fair to say at this point that I was very scared.
And then I had my fears confirmed. At the beginning of January 2022, I received the devastating news that I had pancreatic cancer. I was only 43.
The deadliest common cancer, with the lowest survival rate. The cancer that kills more than half of people within three months of diagnosis.
I couldn’t even have my husband with me for comfort when I received my diagnosis due to Covid. When you’re a nurse, you always look on the dark side of any problem – you have to prepare yourself for the worst – and everything was adding up to the fact that this was not going to be a good diagnosis.
Fear, anxiety, and anger consumed me. I kept asking myself: why me? I sat there, shell shocked, not really taking in what the doctor was telling me.
I was told at this point that I was eligible for the only curative treatment for pancreatic cancer, surgery – but having prepped countless patients for this very surgery, I knew how gruelling and unpredictable it can be. It often involves taking parts of multiple organs out, can take up to nine hours in surgery, and the recovery time is long and painful.
Still, I felt lucky to be part of the minority that could receive surgery, as over 80% of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed too late.
Breaking the news to people was difficult. Being a nurse didn’t make it any easier, either. In fact, it made it harder for me to tell people because I’m the person that they normally look to; to reassure them that everything’s going to be OK.
I couldn’t do that this time because I was completely devastated.
When I worked up the courage to tell my family and friends, I was flooded with love and support. I will always be thankful for it, but at night when you’re on your own, your thoughts can be a horrible, lonely place.
After a date was set for the procedure, I went into panic mode trying to sort everything out just in case I didn’t make it. I wrote letters to my children, which was the hardest thing I have ever had to do but I needed to make sure they knew what they meant to me if I didn’t make it.
For my husband, I wrote down details of childcare, pick-up times for school and extracurricular activities, bin days and food plans, as I was the one who handled this normally and I wanted to make sure he was prepared for all eventualities.
On February 17, I tearfully said goodbye to my family and was sent down for surgery at the Royal Free Hospital in London. The surgery itself was long and is as complex as a heart-bypass, but it went successfully. After 11 days I was discharged.
The road to recovery has so far been a long and painful process, both physically and emotionally. I am currently receiving chemotherapy. It’s hard to describe what chemotherapy is like for people that haven’t experienced it, but intentionally poisoning your body is as awful as it sounds. I hate chemo and chemo hates me.
I’ve had numerous issues with chemotherapy – from deep vein thrombosis, to having needed multiple blood transfusions, but I do feel lucky to be alive.
Pancreatic cancer prognosis has not progressed in the 20 years that I’ve been nursing. In fact, the likelihood of you surviving if you were diagnosed now is just as low as it was in the 1970s.
It is the silent killer, and the symptoms associated with it are vague and often associated with other common conditions, like indigestion, back or tummy pain, changes to your poo, unexpected weight-loss or loss of appetite, and jaundice.
It scares me that there are people out there that will think: ‘Oh, I just feel a bit off but it’s fine, I can’t get a GP appointment, so I’ll just ride it out.’ Then, they become so ill and jaundiced that they get admitted to A&E and, by then, it’s too late.
I was very, very lucky because I could tap into services that I knew well but it’s worrying that people would put off seeking help because they didn’t want to overload an NHS that’s already on its knees.
It’s worrying that GPs would look at somebody my age and think that my jaundice was potentially linked to something like gallstones, and send me for an ultrasound. That would take six to eight weeks, if not longer.
By the time they’ve done that and found that it wasn’t gallstones and they explore further – you could be inoperable.
What’s more, there’s likely going to be a winter crisis when it comes to ICU beds – and you need one after your surgery. Surgeries will get cancelled if there’s no beds. The more surgeries are cancelled, the more opportunity the tumour has to grow and the less likely you’re going to be an open and shut case. It’s utterly horrible.
It’s why I’m backing Pancreatic Cancer UK’s campaign, No Time to Wait, calling for urgent Government action to save lives this winter. Pancreatic cancer has been stagnating in terms of progression, and now it’s a cancer emergency.
They’re calling for all diagnoses of pancreatic cancer to be made within 21 days of referral; they want those people diagnosed to have immediate support from cancer nurses; and they want treatment to be fast.
As a nurse, I was able to recognise the warning signs, but it shouldn’t take a patient having medical knowledge to save their life.
To find out more about the ‘No Time to Wait’ campaign and sign the petition, visit: https://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/ntw
Pancreatic cancer: the symptoms
- Change in the colour of your stools or urine
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin)
- Unexplained loss of appetite, or weight loss
- Pain in the abdomen, and lower back
- Itchy skin
It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer, and to speak to your healthcare provider if you are concerned.
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