AROUND 600 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Ireland annually, and the survival rate is low - somewhere around 9%.
Cork woman Pamela Deasy is among that 9%.
Having been diagnosed, undergoing surgery, and getting the all-clear, she is now aiming to walk a stretch of the Camino Trail in Spain in support of all people diagnosed with cancer.
“I had no idea that only 9% of people survived this,” she said of her pancreatic cancer battle.
“I never looked into any of this side of it. It was only after I found that out.”
By its nature, pancreatic cancer is fast spreading, but the initial phases are symptomless. Early detection is often paramount to recovery, but this can be difficult. Treatment involves a combined approach of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, usually lasting six months.
Now, in a fundraising mission for Breakthrough Cancer Research Cork, on May 15, Pamela, from Union Hall in West Cork, and 27 others - 10 of whom have direct experience of surviving cancer - will travel to northern Spain to walk the 130km stretch of the Camino Trail known as Camino de Ingles.
The six-day trip begins at Ferrol in the north-west, and will lead the walkers south to Santiago de Compostela, a city synonymous with Camino pilgrims.
Breakthrough Cancer Research is currently mainly focused on researching the seven types of cancers that cause almost 50% of all cancer deaths in Ireland. These relate to the brain, esophagus, stomach, ovarian, liver and lung and pancreatic cancer.
Pamela volunteers her time for the Patient Panel Involvement (PPI), which is part of the Breakthrough Cancer Research research facility.
One of her roles there is to relay the medical terminology associated with a person’s diagnosis in layperson’s terms to them.
It was at a recent volunteer meeting that she heard of the fundraising walk in Spain, and said that, because of her own experience of surviving pancreatic cancer, one of the seven cancers being researched by the organisation, her “interest was piqued”. Pamela wanted to do what she could to raise funds for the Research group.
“It piqued my interest because they (BCR) are funding research into pancreatic cancer, and because I had been a patient diagnosed with it in December, 2018.
Up until the summer of 2018, life was fine; normal. Pamela was going about her business like everyone else.
Her days were busy working and being involved in the local GAA and RNLI. But in the summer prior to her diagnosis, a feeling was growing within her. A nauseousness in her body, and an inner knowing that something wasn’t right.
What she was intuiting would eventually be given a name.
“All that summer, I hadn’t been feeling great,” recalls Pamela. “I knew there was something off with me but didn’t know what was wrong.
“Coming up to September or October time, I was getting tired. I went to my regular doctor and I said that I would definitely have to be sent somewhere, because there was something wrong with me.”
Typical symptoms of pancreatic cancer include heartburn, rapid weight loss and tiredness, but Pamela said the only symptom she had was tiredness.
“Tiredness was an issue, but not a huge issue by that October," she said.
Over the intervening months, various tests and scans were conducted, all showing up clear. But by then, the tiredness was extreme.
The indefinable symptoms relented, ebbing and flowing until manifesting as jaundice in December almost five years ago. It was only then that the truth of Pamela’s health was becoming obvious.
“I went to my doctor and they asked me if I had been away on holidays, because I was so yellow. When I said no, they said we had better do some tests. I felt relieved,” Pamela recalled.
Tests showed a 5cm diameter tumor on her pancreas.
If she was to be even considered for surgery, the tumour would need to be 2cm in diameter, less than half of its then size. The only road to reducing its size was chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Pamela’s mother had passed away from lung cancer in 2012, so in her mind, a lot was riding on the chemo and radio therapies, and the hope she would be suitable for whipple surgery, the only type of surgery available to treat pancreatic cancer. This is a complex operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (duodenum), the gallbladder and the bile duct.
It took two bouts of treatment, but it worked. The date was set for August 15, 2019 - she was going to have the surgery required.
And after a successful whipple surgery that lasted 11 hours, Pamela was given the all clear.
What is her main takeaway from the experience?
“You know, you think you get to the end of something, but there’s always another page to be turned.
“Like, when I was first told what I had I didn’t expect to be here today.
“I know I’m never going to be able to do all the things I could do before. But today I’m quite content with myself. I’m happy to spend time by myself. It definitely makes you appreciate what you have and about making the most of your situation.
“I’m so grateful that there is research happening today. Research is key. I think if I had got my diagnosis 10 years ago, I might not be here at all today,” Pamela reflects.
She adds that it is this theme in general that will be on her mind throughout the 130km Camino walk.
“The reason I’m doing this walk really is in support of all my fellow cancer warriors and anyone else going through treatment, and especially those who have gone before their time.
“It’s also a way for me to raise funds for a charity that will give people more time with their families and friends, “she said.
Today, Pamela maintains that she is back to a 70% capacity to what she was prior to her diagnosis and tells me she is happy with that.
She is walking a lot in preparation for the Camino and is now studying for a degree in Religions and Global Diversity In UCC.
Already, Pamela has raised more than €5,000 for Breakthrough Cancer Research, and you can support her journey by donating through this link: https://giv.i.ng/1PZs
According to research by the National Cancer Registry Ireland Cancer Incidence Projections for Ireland 2020-2045, by 2045 it is expected that Pancreatic cancer will rise 119%.