Clatterbridge professor's pancreatic cancer advice

Posted 5th May 2023

Picture of Professor Palmer who is wearing a dark suit and a tie

The topic of pancreatic cancer has returned to the spotlight following the sad deaths of talk show host Jerry Springer and actress Vicky Wright, fiancée of comedian Bobby Davro and daughter of former England footballer Billy Wright.

Pancreatic cancer occurs when cells in your pancreas develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. Although it is the 10th most common cancer in the UK, people may not recognise the early symptoms and know when to seek medical help.

Professor Daniel Palmer, Consultant in Medical Oncology at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool, specialises in pancreatic cancer and has provided some useful advice to help people learn more about the signs and symptoms, risk factors, and the treatments available.

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and produces hormones that help manage your blood sugar.

What symptoms should people look out for?

Professor Palmer highlights the importance of listening to your body and recognising any changes that do occur, such as:

  • Abdominal pain that radiates to a person's back
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Jaundice, or the yellowing of a person's skin, as well as the whites of their eyes
  • Stools that are light-coloured
  • Urine that is dark in colour
  • Itchy skin
  • A new diabetes diagnosis, or an existing case of diabetes that is becoming more difficult to control
  • Blood clots

Are some people more at risk of developing pancreatic cancer?

There are a number of risk factors for pancreatic cancer that cannot be controlled such as ageing, a family history of pancreatic cancer, and inherited genetic syndromes. However, there are factors that you can change, including:

  • Tobacco use – about 25% of pancreatic cancers are thought to be smoking-related. Risks start to drop once a person stops smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemicals used in dry cleaning and metal working industries
  • Weight – people whose Body Mass Index (BMI) is 30 or more having 20% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic pancreatitis, or long-term inflammation of the pancreas, which is often seen with heavy alcohol use and smoking

Professor Palmer advises: “You can reduce your risk of pancreatic cancer by quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and choosing a healthy diet. Consider meeting with a genetic counsellor if you have a family history of pancreatic cancer – you can find further information on genetic testing on the Cancer Research UK website.”

What treatments are there for pancreatic cancer?

Treatment for pancreatic cancer looks different for everyone, depending on:

  • The size and type of pancreatic cancer
  • Your general health
  • Where it is
  • If it has spread

It may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and what is known as ‘supportive care’ to help with any side-effects or other health problems as a result of pancreatic cancer.

Professor Palmer and his colleagues at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre specialise in providing highly-specialist chemotherapy, radiotherapy and supportive care for pancreatic cancer and work closely with surgical colleagues in Liverpool University Hospitals.

Professor Palmer highlights the importance of early diagnosis and explains:

“If pancreatic cancer is found early and it has not spread, you may be able to have surgery to remove it, usually followed by a course of chemotherapy to reduce the risk of it returning. If the cancer has begun to spread outside the pancreas, people will usually need chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. It’s important to speak to your GP if you have any concerns or are experiencing any symptoms that could be pancreatic cancer.”

What research is taking place?

The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre takes part in clinical research both into new treatments for pancreatic cancer and to help with earlier diagnosis. One study being led in Liverpool – with participation from patients at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre – aims to find a test that can pinpoint newly-diagnosed people with diabetes who could be at a higher risk of having pancreatic cancer so they can be treated earlier.

Prof Palmer is part of the UK-EDI research team – led by University of Liverpool molecular biologist Prof Eithne Costello and funded by Cancer Research UK – aiming to develop and validate this test so patients with type 3C diabetes are discovered earlier and screened for pancreatic cancer as a high-risk group.

Prof Palmer said: “Around one in 10 people diagnosed with type 3C diabetes will have pancreatic cancer, so it is incredibly important that the right type of diabetes is identified as early as possible so that any cancer can be treated more easily and more successfully. Through this research we hope to develop a diagnostic test for use in individuals newly diagnosed with diabetes which will identify those most at risk of pancreatic cancer.”

For further information on pancreatic cancer, please visit: