Page last updated at 00:47 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Pancreatic: the forgotten cancer

Pancreatic cancer cells
Survival rates from pancreatic cancer have not improved in 30 years

There have been calls for more funding for research into pancreatic cancer because survival rates have changed little in 40 years.

As BBC Scotland's health correspondent Eleanor Bradford reports, fewer than 20% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will be alive after a year.

The equivalent figure is 80% for breast cancer patients.

Pancreatic cancer hit the headlines earlier this year when it claimed the life of Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze.

In Scotland, it is the fifth most common cause of death from cancer.

However doctors say the cancer has a low profile because it has been wrongly seen as an "old man's disease".

Ross Carter is a pancreatic cancer surgeon in Glasgow.

He said: "There are more 'popular' cancers for attracting charitable donations, particularly those which affect women but pancreatic cancer affects all ages and affects women and men almost equally."

While breast cancer attracted more than £30 million of funding for research in 2007, pancreatic cancer attracted less then £3 million.

Vittoria Ventisai
Vittoria Ventisai died just a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer

Survival rates have closely mirrored the level of funding for research: as research funding increases, new treatments are developed and survival rates also rise.

Vittoria Ventisai was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2008, only a year after giving birth to her second child.

She had ignored indigestion because she was still breastfeeding and assumed she would not be able to take any medicine for it.

However it was an early warning sign of pancreatic cancer and by the time the diagnosis was made, it was too late.

Vittoria's sister, Anne Ventisai said: "My sister was 41 when she was diagnosed and 42 when she died from pancreatic cancer.

"She was fit, healthy, she was a dance teacher and she didn't drink.

"She was told the cancer was inoperable due to it's position and because it was so far advanced. They told her the prognosis was 9 -10 months, there was nothing positive at all."

Survival rates

"If this cancer doesn't affect you or someone you know you would never hear about it, you would never see it on the TV or open a magazine and read about it. I'm very surprised what a bad cancer it is, and how it has such a low profile."

However low levels of research funding for pancreatic cancer have left survival rates trailing behind.

Mr Carter said: "While there have been improvements in surgical treatment the vast majority of patients aren't suitable.

"Survival rates have been relatively static in 30 or 40 years and this is one of the big challenges we face."

Doctors are calling for greater awareness of pancreatic cancer, to help early diagnosis and to encourage more research into treatments.

They say early warning signs include unexplained indigestion which doesn't respond to normal treatment, and are urging GPs to do their bit by referring such patients more quickly for diagnostic tests.

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