Ali Stunt Reaches 15-Years as a Survivor
The Founder and CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Action, Ali Stunt, has joined an exclusive club that you won't want to become a member of. She has joined a very small number of pancreatic cancer survivors to make to the 15-year mark.
Because the number of survivors who make it to 15 years following a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is so small in the UK, there are no statistics available. After reaching the 10-year survival mark, Ali had already joined the 1% club. It is low figures such as this which put the fire in her belly to change the landscape of pancreatic cancer survival rates in the UK with her work through Pancreatic Cancer Action.
Ali was originally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, at the age of 41. In 2006, Ali started feeling under the weather, and her GP sent her for a blood test. This showed high blood glucose levels, indicative of Type 2 diabetes. This was the first red flag for Ali, who had no family history of diabetes and did not have any associated risk factors. She was told to watch her diet and cut her treat intake, but she wasn’t assigned to a diabetic team.
A year later, pain started to develop in the middle of Ali’s back, as though a tennis ball was pressing against her bra strap. When eating, she would experience a gnawing pain as the food went down, leaving her doubling up. She was experiencing weight loss without trying, diarrhoea, and generally feeling rubbish. Upon a visit to A&E, it was suspected that she had gallstones.
An ultrasound was booked for six weeks after the A&E visit. Due to Ali’s husband having private medical insurance, Ali could be seen within two days. If she had not been seen, she would have been mere weeks away from not being able to have the life-saving surgery to remove her tumour. An emergency ultrasound, followed by a CT scan, found a five-centimetre mass on her pancreas.
The diabetes Ali had been diagnosed with a year earlier had been an early sign of pancreatic cancer. She then underwent a ‘distal pancreatectomy’ and ‘splenectomy’, where 80% of the pancreas and all the spleen were removed. Ali received six months of combination chemotherapy and six weeks of chemotherapy treatment.
On this experience, Ali said:
"At that time, I knew nothing about pancreatic cancer. I knew I had a pancreas and what it did, but that was the extent of my knowledge. When my surgeon said they were going to operate in a week's time, I didn't realise that only 8-10% of people with pancreatic cancer are able to have that operation."
“It was a scary time for me, my husband and sons, who were then aged 14 and 10. Afterwards, realising I’d been so fortunate, I made it one of my missions to not just improve the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, but also to make sure people got easy-to-understand patient information because when I was diagnosed, there was no written information I could take home, which left me in the dark and reaching for Dr Google for information.”
Although she is now free from pancreatic cancer, Ali has Type 3c diabetes. Type 3c diabetes can develop when the pancreas stops producing enough of the hormone called insulin. This can happen due to an illness or a condition that affects or damages the pancreas or when you’ve had surgery to remove part of the pancreas. When there isn’t enough insulin in the body, the blood glucose levels rise above the average level, and if left untreated, can lead to complications. Approximately 9% of all diabetes cases are type 3c, but the condition is often misdiagnosed.
Ali founded Pancreatic Cancer Action in 2010, which has become one of the leading UK pancreatic cancer charities and the only one that focuses specifically on early diagnosis. The charity has pushed ground-breaking campaigns, such as “Pancreas Not Penis” and the somewhat controversial “I Wish I Had Another Cancer” campaign. Last June, the charity targeted Wales in an awareness campaign, helping raise awareness of the signs and symptoms amongst the general public and pharmacy teams across the country.
Pancreatic Cancer Action has pushed for many positive changes in terms of direct referrals for CT scans for GPs, direct referrals for pharmacists, and breaking down the barriers so that the general public can better understand the symptoms and risk factors. The charity is currently involved in the Action on the Ground project in Glasgow, which reaches out to local and diverse communities to raise awareness. They are also continuing to support a nursing post in Scotland and breaking down the language barrier by publishing resources in six of the most commonly spoken languages in the UK (after English).
On reaching the 15-year mark and the progress Pancreatic Cancer Action has made so far, Ali said: “Pancreatic cancer is the UK’s fifth biggest cancer killer. Twenty-nine people are diagnosed with the disease each day. For those diagnosed in time for surgery, their chances of surviving beyond five-years increases by up to 30%. Back in 2011, the five-year survival rate was just 3%. In 2022, that figure is 7.3%, highlighting that awareness works, and there is still work to be done!.”
"I am one of the lucky ones to survive 15 years following a diagnosis for pancreatic cancer. It is my mission that there are many more who join my survivor's club and that it is no longer exclusive to one per cent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."