Patient Story: Operable pancreatic cancer

“I feel so lucky to be alive.”

Briony was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was just 26 years old after she had been experiencing symptoms for as long as 5 years before.

She began having dizzy spells from the age of 21 and claims she was told by doctors on several occasions she had anaemia caused by her vegetarian diet.

Briony didn’t experience the classic symptoms of pancreatic cancer as she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which not many people in the UK have. She had been feeling dizzy and fainting which led to it being discovered that she had a low haemoglobin level of 37, meaning she had to endure 14 blood transfusions and 11 iron transfusion.

After this she developed ‘crippling’ stomach pains, which is a symptom of pancreatic cancer, so was referred for MRI and CT scans.

‘It got to the point where I could literally feel something in my stomach if I sat in a certain way.”

She was told that she had an abscess/ulcer on her pancreas which was bleeding and was the reason that she needed blood transfusions.

A consultant took her into a special side room and started to explain that he had been sent images from an endoscopy and could see a mass in her digestive tract.

This is when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told she was eligible to have the Whipple surgery which, alongside chemotherapy, is currently the only cure for the disease.

However, Briony was 6 weeks pregnant at the time and wouldn’t be able to have the operation if she was pregnant. Briony and her partner Jason had to make the impossible, heartbreaking decision to end her pregnancy and go ahead with the operation and treatment.

“It all happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to process any of it. It was all too much to take in.”

Briony said “The doctors said they wouldn’t tell me what to do, but that their medical advice was to terminate the pregnancy, so that I could have the biopsy and then start treatment right away, if I needed to.”

“I couldn’t even think at first – it was too much to take in.”

“Jason and I had a long talk and agreed that we had to think of Archie and Summer. If I kept our baby I could be leaving them without a mother.”

Her official diagnosis was a gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) measuring 4cm.

GISTs are rare cancers. Around 900 people in the UK are diagnosed with a GIST each year. Scientists don’t yet know what causes them.

Briony’s GIST started on her duodenum – a part of the small intestine. It also spread onto her pancreas which is next it.

Briony underwent an 8 and ½ hour Whipple surgery on the 12th December, not knowing if she would be out in time to spend Christmas with her family. During the surgery her duodenum, gallbladder and part of her stomach was removed because the cancer had spread but the surgery was successful.

After 7 days she was allowed home in time for Christmas.

She said: ‘It was really overwhelming to be back with the kids. When you have kids, you can’t just sit there – you have to get up and get on with it.

‘On Christmas Day itself, I was just so relieved to be there. I didn’t care that I spent most of it on the sofa, as I couldn’t get up and down the stairs, or that I couldn’t have much of a dinner. We were together, and that’s what mattered.’

A follow-up test in January 2019 showed that the Whipple operation had been a success, while scans every three months since have confirmed that Briony remains cancer-free.

She is adjusting to having smaller meals because of her surgery, and must take daily tablets to replace the enzymes that her pancreas would have produced.

“After my diagnosis, my main fear was leaving the kids behind, and Archie not remembering me as he was still so young.

When I was going through treatment, it was a case of getting my head down and getting on with it, but now I look back and wonder how I got through it.”

She said: ‘I want to say to everybody out there that you know your own body, so if you think something is wrong, then persist with doctors.

‘Pancreatic cancer is so difficult as the symptoms can be so many other things, but it’s important to be aware of any changes in your body.

‘I am still taking in everything that’s happened over this past year, but I feel so lucky to be alive.’