A MUM diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has urged others to be aware of the early warning signs of the illness.
Mother-of-three Emma Ellis, 45, first visited her GP in April 2018 complaining of stomach pain and her health began to rapidly deteriorate.
But because the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be tricky to pin-point, it wasn’t until September of that year before specialists saw a tumour on her pancreas.
Emma, from Morecambe, Lancs, was initially given just six months to live, with her stage 4 tumour said to be ‘inoperable’ due to the fact it’s wrapped around a major artery.
And yet Emma has not only defied that initial prognosis, she’s also determined to seek alternative treatment - in the form of ‘proton beam therapy’ - to extend her life for as long as possible for the sake of her youngest daughter, Harri, aged just 4.
The former catering worker said: “I know it’s hard for the NHS, but my situation is a difficult pill to swallow.
“And when I speak with other pancreatic cancer patients, many of them have had a similar journey - they’ve had the same fight to get scans and to get an ultimate diagnosis.
“Doctors looked at me, saw that I was 45 and thought, ‘There’s no chance she’s got pancreatic cancer’, a disease that usually affects people in their 70s.
“But I knew something was wrong.
“A big part of the problem is that the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are confusing and difficult to spot. I was going to my GP with random abdominal pain.
“I want to share my story in a bid to make people aware of the symptoms - and that you can be diagnosed with this terrible illness in your forties.”
Emma, also mum to Elle, 24, and Drew, 20, says she was always fit and healthy up until March last year, when she experienced sharp upper abdominal pain, just below her ribcage.
She was referred for an ultrasound by her GP, who suspected gallstones, and six weeks later the ultrasound came back clear.
Doctors then suspected Emma had a stomach ulcer, as she was experiencing pain while eating and she was losing weight.
Emma, who still keeps herself active be going for walks with friends, adds: “I said to my GP, ‘I think I’ve got stomach cancer’. But I was told, ‘There’s no way you’ve got cancer. You’re bloods aren’t showing any markers and you’re too young’.”
She was given medication for her ‘ulcer’ and told to monitor the symptoms for the next three months.
But in the meantime Emma starting to experience excruciating back pain - and she also started throwing-up green bile.
Emma says: “I went back to my GP again - and I ended up seeing thirteen doctors, and went to A&E twice, before I eventually got into the Ambulatory Care Unit at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.
“By mid-September I was begging them. I just knew there was something seriously wrong.”
On the 26th September last year, having undergone a CT scan, specialists surrounded her bed and told her the worst - she had pancreatic cancer.
Emma recalls: "I was told I had six months to live, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I might not see my little girl grow up. It was awful.
“But I knew then I would fight it. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I don’t want to die.”
Emma underwent six sessions of chemotherapy which halved the size of the tumour to 2.5cm.
But Emma was told that because the tumour is located near major organs, standard radiotherapy was not an option.
Which is why she’s now trying to crowdfunding to pay for specialist care - chiefly a type of radiotherapy called proton beam therapy, which she has not been offered on the NHS.
Unlike traditional X-ray radiotherapy, proton therapy uses an accelerated ‘pencil beam’ of positively-charged particles, travelling at 100,000 miles per hour, which is said to target the area with pin-point accuracy and has a better chance of shrinking the tumour.
While X-rays pass all the way through the body, damaging sensitive tissues around and behind the tumour site, proton beam therapy particles stop at the tumour, reducing collateral damage.
The first ever NHS proton therapy centre opened at the Christie Hospital in Manchester last year while a second NHS facility is due to launch at the University College Hospital, London, next year - at a combined cost of £250m.
But they’ll only be able to treat around 750 patients each year, and the vast majority of those will be children.
Emma, who’s undergoing another six sessions of chemotherapy after her tumour began to grow again in June, says: “The NHS has got limited resources and I know they’ll focus on the kids.
“But if I can’t have proton therapy on the NHS, I’m hoping I can go to a foreign clinic, like the one in Prague, Czech Republic, and pay for it privately.
“I’ve already defied a lot of expectations, having fought this thing for more than a year.
“And meanwhile my little one lets me know, in her own way, that she understands what’s going on. She says things like, ‘Are you going to get better, mummy?’ And I have to tell her, ‘I’m going to try my best, but I don’t know if I can, sweetheart.’”
Dr Jiri Kubes, medical director of UK Proton Therapy, said Emma’s case was typical of the pancreatic cancer patients they treated.
He said: “In the past there was virtually no effective option for cancer of the pancreas and liver.
“And while, even today, cure rates are very low, proton therapy can slow the progression of the disease, giving patients who are suitable for the treatment more time to live.
“It will also be the case that many UK patients who want proton therapy are not given access to it through the NHS.
“While the NHS acknowledges the benefits of Proton Beam Therapy, and is building its own centres, they will still only be able to treat a fraction of those who might benefit from it, while many people will be turned down for the treatment because of the very limited indication criteria.
“There’s still a long way to go before patients in the UK have widespread access to it.”
"While, even today, cure rates are very low, proton therapy can slow the progression of the disease, giving patients who are suitable for the treatment more time to live."
Dr Jiri Kubes, UK Proton Therapy
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