It’s almost a year since Hannah McNeil was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Safe to say she hasn’t taken it lying down. She told Standard Issue her story so far.
It started about a year ago. I just wasn’t feeling very well. I was feeling sick quite a lot and going to the toilet quite a lot. Things just didn’t feel right. I was also losing weight, but I’m a fitness instructor and have been a Slimming World consultant for years, so it’s always been about fitness and losing weight.
When I started feeling more and more nauseous. I went to the doctor and for about three months they told me it was acid reflux, so they gave me tablets, and I kept going back and telling them I was still feeling sick.
In the end, just before Christmas, I went privately to see a specialist and he said he thought it was irritable bowel, but that he would do some tests to check it wasn’t anything else. This was on 23 December.
On Christmas Eve I got a message telling me I was diabetic. That was bad enough for me. How could I be a diabetic? I eat the right things, I keep myself fit. It was quite traumatic. The specialist said I should still come in for the scans we had planned, just to be on the safe side.
The week after Christmas, I had an ultrasound where they saw that my pancreas was a bit jaded, so they sent me straight for a CT scan. That’s when they confirmed I had a tumour.
It was quite strange because I never expected in a million years that it would have been anything like that. To go from feeling sick to diabetes – which was being caused by the tumour – and then cancer was a big shock. So as well as everything else, I’m a Type I insulin dependent diabetic now, which is tough.
Straight away they told me I had secondary tumours. The cancer has spread to my liver and they’re saying that it’s inoperable, although I don’t believe that. But for the moment, they’re saying surgery is not for me.
I had a very aggressive course of chemotherapy, which is a bummer and a half. It was a week on and a week off. I would say to people, “Don’t talk to me for a week.” And then the next week I’d be jumping around with energy.
For me, the hardest thing was that they’d say, “Rest if you need to.” I’m not one who sits and watches daytime television. Lying down doesn’t come naturally to me.
“I wake up every morning and I never think, ‘I’m ill’. In the beginning, obviously everything goes through your head. But now I just think, ‘You know what; today’s a new day and what can I do?’”
I’ve lost three stone. My whole life I’ve struggled with my weight – now I can fit into size eight clothes. That feels very strange.
Acceptance has been a big part of this year. Coming to terms with what I have to do now to give myself the best chance. I don’t believe this will be forever, but this is how I have to live my life at the moment.
I managed 14 rounds of the aggressive chemo which is apparently unheard of, but you can only have so much of it before your body tells you it can’t take any more. I had a break for a little bit and then have just started a new chemo drug. The tumour has shrunk and the liver spots have reduced to two, where I had four, so it’s good news.
I wake up every morning and I never think, ‘I’m ill’. In the beginning, obviously everything goes through your head. But now I just think, ‘You know what; today’s a new day and what can I do?’
Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t even know you had a pancreas.
It was strange because the Royal Parks Half Marathon I just ran this year for Pancreatic Cancer UK, I ran last year too, and I remember seeing someone running in a vest with the charity’s logo on it and thinking, ‘What a lovely colour running vest… I wonder where the pancreas is.’
I wish I, or the doctor would have known some of the signs, because then we wouldn’t have wasted months prescribing and taking medication for acid reflux. There needs to be so much more awareness of the symptoms which could be a sign of pancreatic cancer. How can it not be better to be on the safe side?
Sadly most people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have a very short life span after diagnosis because it’s often only found when it’s far too late.
Running has been a passion of mine for the past few years, so when my daughter said she was going to do the half marathon for me, I thought, ‘Well why can’t I do it?’ I feel so strong when I’m running.
I was beating myself up for months because I couldn’t run as fast as I used to. My husband pointed out that I had cancer and was having chemo, which was fair enough, I suppose. There were 10 of us who did it in October. That was one of the best moments of this year – of lots of years. And we raised more than £6,000.
We walked a bit at the end, but we did it. It was one of those days where you feel very proud of yourself and what you’re doing. It’s amazing what can still be achieved.
Both my husband Geoff and I are widowed and very sadly, my husband lost his wife to cancer, so when I first got the diagnosis, my first thought was for him, that he was going to have to go through all that again. He’s been brilliant though. A tower of strength.
My daughters (Megan, 20, and Katie, 23) are great too, and because I look well and feel well most of the time, we try our best to just have a normal life. We walk the dogs and we do stuff. We don’t bring any sadness in. We all believe we’re going to get through this.
We’re looking forward to having a jolly old time at Christmas, just like we always do.
About pancreatic cancer:
• One person dies of pancreatic cancer every hour.
• The disease has the lowest survival rate of all the common cancers, with just four per cent of people living for five years or more after diagnosis, and just one per cent surviving 10 years.
• Five- and 10-year survival for pancreatic cancer has improved very little since the early 1970s.
• Around 8,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer per year in the UK. That’s one every hour.
• Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.
• Pancreatic cancer is predicted to become the fourth largest cancer killer (overtaking breast cancer) by 2030.
(Cancer Research UK)
About Pancreatic Cancer UK
• Pancreatic Cancer UK is the only national charity fighting pancreatic cancer on all fronts, offering support, information, running campaigns and funding vital research.
• The charity run the UK’s only pancreatic cancer-dedicated freephone support line, which is staffed by expert specialist nurses: 0808 801 0707.
• Pancreatic Cancer UK fund research into early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer as well as research into developing new treatments.
• For further information on pancreatic cancer and the support and services available for patients and their carers, visit www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk.