This World Pancreatic Cancer Day, we’re sharing Hannah’s experience of losing not one of her loved ones, but two to Cholangiocarcinoma, also known as Bile Duct Cancer. As well as details of some encouraging research being funded by Clatterbridge Cancer Charity.
Hepato-pancreato-biliary cancers (those which originates in the liver, gallbladder, pancreas and related systems) remain some of the most difficult cancers to treat – with just 7% of patients surviving longer than five years.
Hannah’s mother-in-law, Elsie first started to show signs she was unwell during lockdown, and just a few short months after Elsie’s ashes interment, Hannah’s mum, Patricia was then diagnosed with the same cancer.
“I noticed something was wrong with her and we couldn't put our finger on it, she'd always had a cheeky sense of humour but she started looking tired and losing her appetite. She was very stoic and wouldn't make a fuss about anything... knowing what I know now I would have gone straight to the doctors."
Elsie was too frail for chemotherapy and she passed away in October 2022, just days before she would have turned 82.
Just a few short months after Elsie’s ashes interment, Hannah’s mum, Patricia was then diagnosed with the same cancer. In February this year, Patricia went for a biopsy and, as was the case with Elsie, they found that Patricia also had bile duct cancer.
"I asked 'are we looking at stage four?' and the doctor said 'yes'. I was absolutely heartbroken. It’s supposed to be rare but the last year has been like Groundhog Day for our family – losing both my mum and my mother-in-law to cholangiocarcinoma in under 12 months. I’d never heard of cholangiocarcinoma until mum was diagnosed with it just months after my mother-in-law had died. I’d noticed that mum wasn’t quite herself; she was more tired, was off her food and had had a virus for a while.
I immediately asked mum to go for a blood test and they flagged very high white blood cells, so her GP admitted her to hospital. I couldn’t believe it, we were still grieving and now we were facing a diagnosis of this cancer all over again. We pushed for mum to go to The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, where we were hopeful they were able to help and support us. While I was in the hospital with mum, I met a woman who was visiting her 50-year-old sister who was also in the extremely advanced stages of cholangiocarcinoma on the same ward.
It was at that point I thought, ‘right, something needs to be done to raise awareness - this is not a rare cancer’. Mum received a series of treatments, including an additional CT scan which showed that mum’s tumour had progressively moved on. Mum was also assigned a dietician to help with her food intake, but by April 2023 we knew we just had to make some really special memories with her.”
Patricia passed away in July 2023. She was an animal lover and during her last couple of days staff allowed her dog, Buddy, to visit her one last time.
Bile duct cancer is still considered a rare cancer but Hannah and the family's experience has made them think otherwise. Hannah is full of praise for the medical teams who cared for her mum but she wants more to be done to raise awareness of cholangiocarcinoma and encourage earlier diagnosis and treatment.
"My mother-in-law put on a brave face for too long. It took time for us to realise something was wrong. By the time a CT scan showed a tumour, it was too late and she was too frail for chemotherapy. My advice to others is don’t wait to see how things progress – if there’s a hint that something is wrong, go to your GP straight away and ask for tests. Early warning signs can include loss of appetite, regular indigestion discomfort and extreme tiredness and if you have any of these warning signs, it's important to get them checked by your GP."
Surgery is the only treatment with curative intent for pancreatic cancer while chemotherapy and radiotherapy have also been shown to improve survival in late stage pancreatic cancer*. To raise funds for Clatterbridge Cancer Charity, Hannah completed the 2023 Port Sunlight 5K. Her donations enabled us to help fund a £50,000 research project which is being led by Dr Daniel Palmer.
Dr Palmer and his collaborators are going to track the progress of 30 patients in a project which will last 18 months, observing particular markers in their blood which they hope will inform them about how the chemotherapy drugs which are currently used might be altered in order to help prevent the cancer from spreading to new parts of the body. It's thanks to your continued support that we can fund further cancer treatments and research projects, which will help to provide the very best care possible to cancer patients now, and in the future. If you would like to find out more about how your support can help make a difference, visit clatterbridgecc.org.uk.