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Only one in ten GPs have the tools needed to diagnose pancreatic cancer in time to treat

Posted by: Research 1 May 2019

Just one in ten GPs (11 per cent) say they have the tools they need to diagnose pancreatic cancer - the deadliest common cancer - early enough for treatment to be possible, according to new polling for Pancreatic Cancer UK released today (Wednesday 1 May).

A further half of GPs (54 per cent) say that they have some of the tools they need, but could do with more. Of even greater concern is that three in ten (28 per cent) say that they do not have the tools that they need to detect pancreatic cancer at a stage where it is possible to treat. The findings mark the launch of our new campaign Unite-Diagnose-Save Lives to help fund the first-ever simple test for pancreatic cancer by 2024.

Only three per cent of the 1,007 UK GPs polled by ComRes on behalf of the charity said they were very confident they could detect the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer in a patient. One in four pancreatic cancer patients die within a month of diagnosis, making it the quickest killing cancer. No screening or early detection tests exist for the disease and currently half of all patients (53 per cent) are diagnosed at stage 4 (1). Vague symptoms - such as back pain, indigestion and weight-loss - mean pancreatic cancer often goes undetected until after it has spread, leaving patients ineligible for the only potential cure - surgery to remove their tumour.

The Government has prioritised the early diagnosis of cancer in the NHS long term plan. However, only a fifth (22 per cent) of the GPs polled believed the target - for all patients to receive a definitive diagnosis or a ruling out of cancer within 28 days by 2020 – was currently realistic for people with pancreatic cancer.  At present, just 3 per cent of NCRI funding allocated for early diagnosis is spent on pancreatic cancer.

GPs who suspect the disease can refer patients for ultrasound, CT, or MRI scans. However nearly half of all pancreatic cancer patients are currently diagnosed via an emergency (such as through visiting A&E). The impact is significant: one-year survival for patients diagnosed through a GP referral is three times higher.

We have brought together over 40 researchers from across the UK for a new research project to develop the first-ever simple test for the disease by 2024. As The Early Diagnosis Research Alliance researchers will combine their expertise to enhance the sensitivity and accuracy of biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, collect a new biobank of samples from patients with vague symptoms, and test new tools in a clinical trial to consider how a dedicated diagnosis pathway for pancreatic cancer could be implemented in the NHS.

The charity is investing an initial £750,000 in the research and is asking for the public’s support to help ensure a desperately needed breakthrough in diagnosis can be made. 

Ann Stella is acutely aware the heartbreak caused by the disease. Her son Robert went backwards and forwards to GP for five years before he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer on his 26th birthday, days after visiting A&E. He died in hospital four months later. Ann was distraught when she was told that the cancer had been diagnosed too late for the doctors to save him.

Ann said: “Robert was a flamboyant, gregarious, fun-loving young man but he was always very, very tired. No one could find out what caused it. He lost a lot of weight and had a lot of back pain.  He would go to the GP on a regular basis, at least once a month. They couldn't find anything wrong with him. There were no tests, nothing to diagnose anything, and they just thought it was anxiety and stress. He called me one day from work and he said, I'm feeling very, very unwell. ‘Can you take me to the hospital?’ That was when we found out about Robert having pancreatic cancer.

“To get up every morning and live without this beautiful boy, who had so much potential, is such a challenge and I would not wish this on anyone. Action is what we need. Most people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, will be dead within a month, one for four people. So early diagnosis, some sort of test needs to be done as soon as possible.”

Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “For too long pancreatic cancer has been able to silently go undetected, devastating families. Thousands of patients a year, still reeling from hearing the word cancer, are told it’s too late, that nothing can be done for them. That has to stop. We have to give doctors the tools they need to detect the warning signs earlier, so they can ensure those who need it, receive treatment as soon as possible.  

“Previous approaches to research funding have been too small, too infrequent and too isolated to speed up the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. So we’ve united the brightest scientists from across the country to make the progress that’s been so badly needed for decades. We are delighted to be making our largest ever investment in early diagnosis research, but it’s an enormous challenge. We need the public to stand with us and support our campaign if we are to discover the diagnostic test we desperately need to save lives.” 

Professor Steve Pereira from University College London Hospital, who is leading the Early Diagnosis Research Alliance, said: “For the first time we will be able to investigate a number of key, interrelated barriers to early diagnosis simultaneously, which will help us make faster progress. Within five years I would like to see a validated diagnostic pathway and one or more simple tests being implemented in the NHS. That would mean thousands more people receiving the most effective treatments, giving patients and their doctors a fighting chance of beating this dreadful disease.”  

We are urging the public to pledge their support for more research into early diagnosis. Read more about our Unite-Diagnose-SaveLives campaign.