My lovely Mum Sandra was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer on 8th March 2017 and passed away on 1st August 2017.  We’re honoured to share her story to help raise awareness of the symptoms of the disease, and to support others on their cancer journey.

Mum’s symptoms began in early December 2016 when she began complaining of pains in her stomach.  She’d had her gallbladder removed 11 years prior and so at the time put it down to digestion problems.  When the pains worsened in January 2017, Mum saw her GP who prescribed her medication for a suspected stomach ulcer.  We went away on a family trip to London where Mum continued to be in pain and was struggling to eat, though she soldiered on.

Following a severe bout of sickness in February and March 2017, her GP sent her for an ultrasound and CT scan and we were given the devastating news that she had a 4cm cancerous tumour on her pancreas.  In a double blow, the tumour was too close to her major organs, which meant it was sadly inoperable.

Despite her diagnosis, Mum was incredibly calm and positive right from the get-go.  Determined to face things head on, she decided she wanted to be fully informed on her treatment options and prognosis, and so we went about arming ourselves with as much information as possible.  This is where the work of Pancreatic Cancer Action was massively helpful in understanding the different stages of the condition, treatment options and possible side effects. We were shocked to learn about the low survival rates for pancreatic cancer, mainly due to it being a ‘silent cancer,’ as the symptoms often don’t present until it’s advanced.

Having being told her cancer was terminal, Mum made the difficult but brave decision to focus on maintaining the best quality of life possible, even if this meant forfeiting extra time offered by gruelling chemo and radiotherapy treatments.  In the end, Mum decided on Gembatacin, a gentler type of chemotherapy.  The doctors hoped this would at least keep the tumour at bay, with the best case scenario being that it would help shrink the tumour enough to operate.  At this point, the Consultant advised a rough timeframe of 6 – 12 months.

At the end of March 2017, Mum developed severe jaundice, a common side-effect of pancreatic cancer.  Her GP was concerned and referred her to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre, Leeds for an urgent operation to fit a stent to open her bile duct.  Fortunately, this was a success and Mum was able to return home and eat most of the foods she enjoyed.

Mum began her first cycle of chemotherapy on 4th May 2017.  We were worried about side effects but Mum did brilliantly, despite missing a couple of week’s chemo due to low blood platelets.  All the way through, Mum’s attitude was incredible and she was determined to make the most of every moment.  Mum’s strong faith helped her immensely and she would often say how happy she was to have such lovely people around her, and how ‘all the good things were magnified by a hundred’.

Sandra and Rachel on holiday

Although Mum wasn’t well enough to plan any big trips away, we made a ‘mini bucket list’ and she was able to fulfil many of these last wishes – going away for her 73rd birthday in a cottage together and celebrating her 52nd wedding anniversary.  The day after Mum’s first chemo session I was bridesmaid for a good friend and Mum was determined to make it to the wedding.  The thought of Mum never seeing me walk down the aisle at my own wedding broke my heart and so this was the next best thing – an emotional moment for all of us! We also managed to take Mum to see her favourite musical ‘Mamma Mia’ in early June, which she loved.

The following week, Mum’s health seemed to take a nosedive.  She was in a huge amount of pain and running a temperature, forcing us to call the emergency doctor out twice that weekend.  Unable to get her pain under control, Mum was admitted to the Prince of Wales Hospice on 19th June.  Luckily, we had already built up a relationship with the hospice through Mum’s Macmillan nurse and they were brilliant in rallying round to quickly organise a bed.

Mum’s condition deteriorated rapidly over the next two days – she went from being otherwise healthy to barely conscious.  It transpired that Mum had contracted sepsis, and was transferred to Pinderfields Hospital for emergency treatment.  Twice that week, Mum stopped breathing and we were called to the hospital expecting the worst.  But amazingly she pulled through, despite also contracting DVT in her groin a few days later – a true fighter!

During her stay in hospital, the Consultant ordered a follow up CT scan which gave the news we were dreading – the chemo sadly hadn’t been successful and Mum’s cancer had now spread to her liver.  We were told she’d no longer be able to continue with chemo due to the aggressive growth of the tumour, and had at the most 3 months to live, if not weeks.  Although heartbroken, we resolved to enjoy the short time mum had left and focus on making her as comfortable and pain free as possible.

Sandra & Gerald on their wedding day in 1965

After being discharged from hospital, Mum was able to come home for 10 days where Dad and I cared for her in the comfort of her own home.  This was challenging due to Mum’s confusion and limited mobility, but we had brilliant support from Mum’s Macmillan Nurse as well as the District Nurses and her GP.   We managed to walk her round the village in her wheelchair to chat to neighbours and enjoy her lovely garden.

Unfortunately, Mum’s stint at home was short lived as her pain become really difficult to manage, and she was admitted back to the hospice on 13th July.  Mum quickly became very confused, sleeping nearly all day, and we were told it was likely the cancer had spread to her brain.  This was incredibly difficult to see as it felt like Mum’s lovely persona was gradually slipping away.  During this time the hospice staff were absolutely brilliant, arranging for us to have a family room so that me and Dad could take it in turns to stay overnight with Mum.  On 31st July, Mum’s breathing became laboured and we knew she didn’t have long left.  Both me and Dad decided to stay over with Mum that night and it was to be our last evening together as a family – Mum passed away peacefully at 4.50pm on 1st August 2017 with me and Dad at her side.

Sandra with Rachel as a baby

Losing my amazing Mum in just 4 short months feels too surreal and overwhelming to wrap our heads around.  Yet I can honestly say it’s been a privilege to care for Mum and we feel so blessed to have had this time with her.   We’ve been blown away by the kindness of friends, relatives and medical staff.  Despite leaving a huge Mum-shaped hole in our lives, the journey has taught us to love fiercely and ‘magnify all the good things’, just as Mum was so determined to do.  I think this is the legacy she would want to leave.

We’re also doing the our local ‘Stride for Survival’ 10k on 1st October at Thornes Park, Wakefield to support Pancreatic Cancer Action, and would encourage anyone to get involved with their amazing work!

Our advice for anyone walking this journey:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the future. I realise this is a hugely personal thing, but for us, it was really helpful to be able to speak openly as a family about Mum’s prognosis – this enabled us to plan and really focus on making the most of the time Mum had left and make lovely memories, giving friends and relatives the opportunity to say their goodbyes.
  • Learn to accept help – we were really fortunate to have all our meals cooked by friends from church. Just having these practical needs met was a massive help, especially when rallying between home and hospice
  • Know you’re not doing the journey alone – for us, the hospice, Macmillan and Pancreatic Cancer Action were really helpful in sharing experiences and knowing what to expect.
  • Don’t be afraid to contact the hospice early – contrary to our initial views about hospices, they’re not just for end of life care – most run day centres and outreach programmes which are brilliant for building up relationships with other people with cancer, and ensuring care can be quickly put in place when the time comes.
  • Look after yourself – close relatives are often thrust overnight into the role of caregiver and it’s important to make sure you get enough rest and eat well.
  • Help raise awareness! Pancreatic cancer is often misunderstood by the medical world and so supporting early diagnosis by being symptom aware is absolutely key.