Actress Alison Steadman’s mother was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in 1994. She died two years afterwards.
Ahead of pancreatic cancer awareness month in November, Alison tells us more about her mum’s experience of pancreatic cancer, and why she believes that research could transform the future for people affected by the disease.
“We were all on a family holiday when I realised that something was seriously wrong. Mum had been feeling unwell for a while and had visited her doctor two or three times. The doctor had tried to help, given her various pills and told her not to worry.
“We just thought she was under the weather. But while on our holiday, she kept going to bed early and saying she did not want to go out with us for the day. Then one morning, mum was so unwell that she couldn’t get up for breakfast. By the time we all got home, mum’s skin and the whites of her eyes had turned bright yellow. So we rushed her to hospital.
“At first the doctor thought that her gall bladder had become blocked or something similar; and we hoped that it was something that could just be ‘put right’. We thought she could have an operation of some kind, and that would solve it. We were pretty ignorant about those sorts of symptoms, really.
“When she was in hospital, they did lots of tests. I went in to see mum and I tried to speak with the doctor, but I just could not pin him down and get a direct answer. I was just told that they had to do more tests. Then I started to suspect it was something very serious.
“I do appreciate that doctors have an extremely difficult job, to give the worst news to people. But when mum was told that she had advanced pancreatic cancer, she was alone in the ward. No family members there, and not even a nurse was with her. Her hospital bed was by a big window and I remember mum saying that she felt as though the doctor had picked her up and thrown her against it. She was then left alone again. I think that was unforgivable.
“This was a time when no-one had mobile phones. So my mum had to scrabble around trying to find the right coins for the hospital pay phone to call my sister. We were all devastated by the news, as you can imagine.
“My family and I then went to the hospital, and the doctor told us that mum had between two and six months to live. He was very cold. It was such a shock to be told that there was nothing that anybody could do to help.
“Then, the sister was very kind to us, she sat with us and made us all a cup of tea. She said she knew how serious this was and how difficult it was to deal with. She felt that mum would be much better off if she was cared for in a local hospice. At that time, mum was living independently and my dad had been dead for four years. We agreed that going into the hospice was the best thing to do.
“Two of the major emotions I remember were absolute shock and disbelief. There had been no cancer in our family. You hear about these diseases, but you never think it will ever happen to you or a member of your family. I don’t know why you think that, maybe it’s a sort of survival instinct. You just think we’ll all just fade away of old age.
“My sisters and I were absolutely devastated to lose mum. It was very sad for my two sons as well, they were very shocked. My mum was a very strong woman and had a big personality. She was fun and very loving. She was the heart and soul of the whole family. One thing mum asked me before she died was to promise her that we would always stick together, me and my sisters, because she worried that when she was gone, we would lose our connection because we all lived far away from each other. We haven’t drifted apart, we still see each other all the time.
“In the early seventies, I did a play about a young woman with breast cancer. At that time, if women found a lump they would often just ignore it. They didn’t think it could be something serious, or they were shy about reporting it. Just think about how things have progressed since then. Now, mostly as soon as a woman finds a lump in her breast, she will go straight to the doctor and report it. There are also screenings, which have made a huge impact.
“But pancreatic cancer almost feels like the ‘forgotten’ cancer. It really feels as though next to nothing has changed for people with this disease in the 21 years since mum died. When people are diagnosed when the cancer has spread into other parts of the body, they can still only expect to live for as long as mum could all those years ago. In this day and age, I think that is pretty shocking.
“I think we need to all know the symptoms of this horrible disease, visit our doctor if we are worried, and talk to them about pancreatic cancer. But the biggest problem is that, over the years, so little has been spent on pancreatic cancer research compared to other cancers. This has to change, so that people can be diagnosed earlier and have a better chance of living for longer. I wouldn’t want any family to have to go through what we did, but the fact is, they will have to if we don’t raise more funds for pancreatic cancer research.”
To sign up to Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Purple Alert campaign this pancreatic cancer awareness month, visit www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/pcam