How PERT tablets helped me battle pancreatic cancer, one bite at a time

Although the importance of PERT (Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy) was explained to James when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was only through his experience of living with the disease that he came to realise that it would save his life.

When I was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was faced with a mountain of medicine. On top of everything else I had to get my head around, here were dozens of new brands and medical terms that, seven months later, I’m now pretty familiar with, but were then a scary new language. Although the importance of PERT was explained to me at the time, it was only through experience that I came to realise that it would save my life.

PERT helps food work with your body again.

As soon as I was diagnosed with an inoperable Stage 4 tumour on my pancreas, spreading to various parts of my abdomen, I also became incapable of eating. After a couple of scans, it became clear that my bowel was blocked, with at least one area so out of shape that nothing I ate could make its way from my stomach to my bowel. I was vomiting faeces. The thought of eating became repulsive. This is what’s meant by ‘wasting away’. My surgeon told my wife I could die in less than a week.

I needed to be operated on, a procedure which was, to cut a long story short, hugely successful. But as I lay in bed for weeks recovering, I kept losing weight. I was very weak. To stay alive, I needed my entire digestive system to start working again.

Straight after the surgery I had to be cautious about what I ate. After all, my surgeon had created a new route to bypass sections that were cancerous, so soups and light snacks were all it could cope with. Eventually, once everything had knitted together properly, and after more weeks of getting lighter and weaker, I began to eat properly. I had to, as I’d now lost a quarter of my original weight.

The energy to fight back

At first, I’d take the PERT tablets before meals, or a while afterwards. During these weeks, the weight loss began to slow down. Then I worked out that it was best to take the pills with meals, to send the all-important enzymes down to my stomach at the same time as the fats I was eating, fats that would otherwise go straight through as diarrhoea.

As I began to eat like I used to, with my old enthusiasm and curiosity for new tastes, PERT started to work its magic by providing my stomach with the enzymes my pancreas was no longer capable of processing.

Battling pancreatic cancer, one bite at a time

My weight went up. And up. Six months after my original diagnosis, I’m at my ‘ideal’ weight, a couple of stone lighter than I used to be. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as part of a healthy weight loss journey! Best of all is how it makes me feel. After months as weak as a kitten, I’m starting to get back to how I felt before my diagnosis.

In the last six months I’ve been through ten cycles of chemotherapy. The toughest moments of this notorious, formidable experience have been manageable, I believe, because I’ve had the strength that came from eating and digesting food properly.

A brilliant team and the right medicine

Obviously, at this point I should mention how incredible my medical team and my amazing family have been. But it’s not stretching the truth to say that my returning physical robustness has been key to keeping me alive. The chemotherapy has shrunk my tumour by two thirds and I’m now ready to pause it, get fit and return to my old life. Without PERT I would not have had the strength.

It’s not without its inconveniences, but given what it has achieved, I really don’t care that I have to take a pack of pills out with me wherever I might eat. And the pills I have to knock back in handfuls during meals have gone from being a depressing symbol of my illness, to a trusted companion in my survival.

I was vomiting faeces. The thought of eating became repulsive. This is what’s meant by ‘wasting away’.

James, who has pancreatic cancer

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