“Michelle was sitting with mum when she told me that it was pancreatic cancer. Our world fell apart.”
Today, Debbie shares her sister Michelle's harrowing experience with this awful disease. Despite this story taking place in 2008, the sad truth is that pancreatic cancer still lags far behind other common cancers' survival rates and highlights just how vital our work is in striving for early diagnosis as it is the only way to save more lives.
“My sister Michelle and I have always been a little chubby, fluctuating between me being chubby and her being slim, and vice versa. Michelle was 43 and at a chubby stage, I wasn’t far behind!
“In January 2008, Michelle began to lose weight and had started to suffer from indigestion-like symptoms that would come and go. She went to see her GP who prescribed antacids to help with the acid reflux she was feeling, and he diagnosed it as indigestion.
“Come February, the pain started. The acid feeling was still there, and now she was getting pain through her tummy to her back, right through to where her bra strap did up. Michelle and her husband went back to the GP, leaving with the same diagnosis of indigestion and with a prescription for more Gaviscon and antacids. Michelle was still working full-time and had a son who was turning 18, so she ploughed on with life despite having to live in pain.
“April arrived, and Michelle was very slim and in a lot of pain, she still going to work and just about managing to function. One afternoon, she popped in for her cuppa and she looked like she was in a lot of pain and exhausted. I told her to go home and lie down as that might make her feel a little better. But something did not sit right with me, and after she’d left, I jumped in my car and drove straight round to her house. I went in and she was on the floor curled up in a ball in agony, I scooped her up and drove straight to A&E.
“At A&E a junior doctor called Danny took Michelle’s temperature and her BP which were both sky-high. Danny said something was not right and with all her symptoms, ordered a CT scan. We went home with Michelle still in pain, but at least we knew something was being done.
“Two days later I got a call from Mum who said that Michelle and her husband had taken a call from the GP regarding her CT scan. Michelle was sitting with mum when she told me that it was pancreatic cancer. Our world fell apart, it was awful. I didn’t see Michelle that day because I was too afraid to face her; I was scared. My beautiful sister who was just 43 had cancer.
“At this point, it was full on ‘let’s get Michelle fixed’! Once the news had sank in, we looked for treatments. Michelle’s GP couldn’t apologise enough for the late diagnosis and became a close family friend. I would visit him in his surgery to show him possible treatments that I had found, one being enzymes, which he quickly prescribed. He also referred her to the oncology team at our local hospital.
“I never missed a visit with her. On 1st May 2008, the consultant who put her through a CT scan said that the cancer was so far advanced that she would only have six months left to live. It was another huge shock for us, but at least he referred Michelle for surgery to cut the nerves in her spinal column to help reduce her pain.
“The evening of the surgery arrived, and a lovely lady was doing the operation. She said there was a great chance this would work, and Michelle would become pain-free, and so off they went to theatre. An hour and a half later, the surgeon came out and she was crying! We panicked, and she went on tell us that Michelle’s cancer had turned her insides into jelly and there was nothing they could do. Stunned and in shock we left the hospital with Michelle who was still groggy.
“The GP recommended palliative care and a course of chemotherapy. Everything became a blur; Michelle was on Morphine and other medicines. I went to her house at 6am every day, her husband carried on going to work, and she even kept trying to cook his dinner every evening until it was too much. I would ask her if she fancied anything nice to eat, she would almost always say lamb chops! Sometimes, those lamb chops would be in the oven at 8am.
“At this point, we told extended family and friends, and steadily, the calls and requests to visit came flooding in. Unfortunately, she was too weak for visits, so we kept it to close family.
“We had a Macmillan nurse that came in every day. Michelle had started to get abnormal build-ups of fluid and was extremely uncomfortable. Her tummy would swell so much that she looked nine months pregnant, and the pain was unbearable for her. It was drained in the hospital three times, and each time over four litres of fluid came out, you could see the relief on her face.
“At night, Mum would stay with Michelle. Night-time was the worst; the pain just would not ease and the anger of “why me” all came out.
“By late September, Michelle was sleeping a lot, and we spent our days reminiscing. With the help of her nurses, her husband took her to Portsmouth, and she also got to see her favourite singer, Sting from The Police; the smile on her face said it all.
“On 30th September 2008, Mum called me. Michelle would not wake up. I ran to her house, and everyone was there. While my brother was carrying her downstairs, she woke up and I called an ambulance. At A&E they put her on a drip, and it was like magic, Michelle sprung back to life! She was laughing with us. All the nurses were shocked at how young she was and how she was suffering so much, they were all amazing. Her husband and I spent the night in the hospital by her side.
“On 1st October 2008, Michelle slept through the night and had fallen into a coma. Doctors came and ordered more tests. A junior doctor came back with the results, and he started to cry and was distraught telling us there was nothing they could do for Michelle. I called my family.
“They moved Michelle into a quiet room where she was comfortable. With just myself and her husband, we called the priest, and he came. No sooner had he given last rights and closed the door, she passed. From that day forward, my life changed forever.”
In memory of Michelle Hamill, 09-01-1965 to 01-10-2008