A WOMAN who survived pancreatic cancer after turning yellow like a ‘Simpson’ is urging people to be persistent with their GPs.

Helen French, 60, will be walking across Basingstoke, Kingsclere and West Berkshire this month to raise money for Pancreatic Cancer U.K.

In July, she underwent lifesaving surgery after a tumour was found on her pancreas.

The mother-of-two, from West Berkshire, said her symptoms were only taken seriously after she started presenting with jaundice - turning into 'Marge Simpson'. 

 

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Pancreatic Cancer UK said Helen’s case is ‘exceptionally rare’ as only ten per cent of people diagnosed with the deadly disease can be operated on.

“I first went to my GP about heartburn, acid reflux and feeling full in April 2021. I was prescribed some medication and told it was probably gallstones and nothing sinister,” she said.

Helen’s story comes as a poll carried out by the charity found that almost a quarter of people would wait three months or more before going to a GP with symptoms of the disease.

Basingstoke Gazette: Helen at Oxford Churchill Hospital before surgeryHelen at Oxford Churchill Hospital before surgery

The average survival rate across Europe is just five per cent, with one per cent living for ten years or more after diagnosis.

Symptoms include bloating, light stool colour, itching and dark urine. But because they are vague, it is often hard to pick up, the charity said.

The grandmother-of-two had not told her family about her symptoms, but on her 60th birthday, her daughters realised something was wrong.

“My grown-up children had taken me to a fantastic Michelin-star restaurant to celebrate and things took a dramatic turn,” the business analyst said.

“I found I could hardly eat a thing, which made me feel absolutely terrible. I started to feel so unwell, I couldn’t eat the meal and was sick.”

Daughter Laura Verney, 30, said: “We were so worried about her. She usually enjoys eating out and, despite the occasion, didn’t look like herself. We encouraged her to go back to the doctors the following week.”

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Helen did go back to her doctor and was waiting for a referral when, a few weeks later, her skin started to change colour.

Laura had invited the family around to meet her newborn baby. She said: “At first we thought mum looked well, she was looking slim and tanned but closer up we realised her skin was sallow and the whites of her eyes had turned yellow. We knew this couldn’t be normal and sent her upstairs to call 111.”

Helen said: “I initially thought I had just caught the sun or it was the lighting in my house, but as each day went on I become more yellow. I looked like Marge Simpson.”

The next day, at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon, Helen underwent a series of blood tests and a CT scan, which revealed a mass on her pancreas.

“I didn’t want to believe it was cancer to begin with and hoped it was just a growth,” Helen said.

“It was scary because in myself I felt fine. I was going through the stressful process of moving house at the time. The jaundice had become unbearably itchy but I thought it might just be allergies from the pollen.”

Helen’s case was referred to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, where she was told that, luckily, due to how early her symptoms had been caught and because of her normal BMI, they would be able to carry out an emergency operation the following week.

Basingstoke Gazette: Oxford Churchill Hospital Oxford Churchill Hospital

“It was scary, but I didn’t have time to think about it,” she said.

“I had an eight-hour operation to remove the tumour and my pancreas and, despite being wired up to drips and goodness what else, I was back up on my feet the following day after surgery.  

“I can’t express how grateful I feel to be alive. I was amazed by the speed and amount of planning that went on behind the scenes to get me into surgery. It absolutely blew me away.

“I feel so very fortunate to be one of the very few people to receive an early diagnosis and able to have surgery for pancreatic cancer,” she said.

Basingstoke Gazette: Helen pictured with her daughters six weeks after undergoing lifesaving surgeryHelen pictured with her daughters six weeks after undergoing lifesaving surgery

Helen continued:  “The vast majority of people in the UK who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within three months. Part of the problem is there is no early screening in place as the symptoms can be very vague and unspecific.

“I now want to encourage as many people out there as possible to get help or advice if they are worried about pain in the stomach coupled with continual acid reflux which doesn’t go away with medication.

“I was initially told it was ‘probably gallstones’, which was enough to reassure me but not my daughters, who insisted I pushed for further tests.

“Being persistent can save your life,” she added.

A spokesman for Pancreatic Cancer UK said Helen’s case was ‘exceptionally rare’ as she falls into the ten per cent of people able to receive the only life-saving surgery available to remove her cancerous growth.

“This case really stresses the importance of early diagnosis,” a spokesman said.

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Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of any common cancer in the UK. More than half of patients die within three months of diagnosis.

Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “We do not want people to panic if they have some or all of these symptoms, because most people who do will not have pancreatic cancer. But it is absolutely vital that people learn more about this disease, talk to their loved ones and their GPs, and help us end the culture of silence around the deadliest common cancer in the UK.”

Helen is raising money for the charity as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, through a series of walks throughout November.

She will be walking in Hannington on Sunday, November 7, Cliddesden on Saturday, November 21, and Burghclere on Saturday, November 27. Visit her fundraising page here.

  • For help and advice about the pancreatic cancer, contact Pancreatic Cancer UK’s free support line on 0808 801 0707. Anyone concerned about their symptoms should contact their GP or call 111 in a non-emergency.

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Symptoms of pancreatic cancer 

Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer because it's hard to diagnose early. The vast majority of people will die within three months of diagnosis. 

That's why it's so important to be aware of the symptoms to look for as soon as they start.

The most common symptoms to look out for include:

  • stomach pain
  • back pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • indigestion
  • loss of appetite
  • changes to bowel habits: This includes steatorrhoea (pale, smelly stools that may float), diarrhoea or constipation
  • jaundice: Where your skin and eyes turn yellow. It also causes dark urine, pale stools and itchy skin
  • difficulty swallowing
  • recently diagnosed diabetes: The pancreas produces insulin, which helps to control the amount of sugar in the blood. Cancer can stop it from working properly, meaning it might not produce enough insulin and cause diabetes
  • extreme tiredness
  • feeling unusually full after food
  • blood clots in a vein