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How one woman is trying to prevent people dying from the pancreatic cancer that killed her grandmother

Scarva woman Victoria Poole has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the deadly disease and the need for early diagnosis

By Joanne Sweeney

The devastating loss of her much loved grandmother to pancreatic cancer has prompted one young woman to campaign for an improvement in detection and survival rates of the disease known as Northern Ireland's 'silent killer'.

Victoria Poole's first and only experience of cancer in her family ended in heartbreak when her grandmother Isobel Turner died from the disease in June, 2014 - just seven months after being diagnosed and told that her condition was terminal.

The 24-year-old from Scarva, Co Down has now become a spokesperson for Pancreatic Cancer UK in Northern Ireland, in order to lobby for a government-funded regional campaign to help the public recognise the early warning signs of the disease before it's too late.

The statistics behind pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland are alarming.

It has the lowest survival rate of any of the most common 21 cancers, with just 18% of people surviving a year or more.

Even more shocking is that only 5% of people with the cancer survive beyond five years, the time period that medical professionals and patients benchmark as a cure from cancer.

And it's predicted that by 2030, pancreatic cancer will overtake breast cancer as the fourth most common cancer killer in the UK.

In 2013, 227 new cases were diagnosed in Northern Ireland, but 236 people died from the disease in the same year.

Yet a recent ComRes survey of over 2,000 people across the UK, commissioned by Pancreatic Cancer UK, found that over three quarters of people living in Northern Ireland are unable to name a symptom of pancreatic cancer.

The highlighted symptoms to look out for include stomach pain, weight loss, yellow skin or eyes or itchy skin, and oily, floating faeces. The Northern Ireland Public Health Agency's 'Be Cancer Aware' campaign publicise these danger signals.

The swiftness of how the disease advances is something that leaves loved ones reeling, including Fifty Shades of Grey movie star Jamie Dornan, from Holywood, Co Down, who lost his mother Lorna to pancreatic cancer when he was aged just 16.

To say that her 84-year-old grandmother was a major figure in Victoria's life is an understatement.

She considered her a "role model" and is thankful that she instilled her firmly held Christian and life values into her and her siblings Rachael and Andrew.

Like so many other people with the disease, Mrs Turner had been suffering from abdominal pain for a few months two years ago and had lost some weight.

She sought medical advice on a number of occasions to address her concerns and was told she had a suspected case of diverticulitis - which is inflammation of the colon.

Victoria takes up the story: "My nanny's GP referred her for a hospital appointment to undergo some further tests to clarify her symptoms. Due to hospital waiting times, it would have been some time before she was seen.

"My nanny had private health care and was fast-tracked to a hospital consultant for a colonoscopy in October 2013.

"That came back clear for diverticulitis, but she was still having pain and so it needed further investigation. So she was sent for an MRI scan which revealed the cancer.

"Thankfully she was fast-tracked again, because otherwise she might well have died before the final diagnosis was made on November 21, 2013.

"Nanny didn't have any chemotherapy, as the cancer was too far advanced by the time she was told what it was. Anyway, with pancreatic cancer, only an operation can give the patient a chance of survival.

"I've never experienced first-hand anyone being diagnosed with cancer, so it really hit me when I heard the news. I can't even remember the time when my mother told me, as I think I just zoned out as I didn't know how to react to it.

"I just kept thinking 'she will be fine, she'll get through it,' but the time came when her health began to deteriorate and I realised that this was not going to go away.

"In the later stages, it was so sad to see her when it got to the point she was bed-ridden and couldn't walk up the stairs any more.

"I would sit beside her and try to help her, but I felt so helpless - we all did. My grandfather was devastated at the thought of losing his wife, who he had been married to for over 50 years."

Sadly, Mrs Turner died in June last year.

However, while the loss is still very painful to Victoria, she has very happy memories of her grandmother when she was growing up.

"My nanny had only three grandchildren; that's me, my brother and sister. We were her pride and joy. She just loved us and lived for us.

"My best memories of her are when we were little and playing outside her house outside Lurgan. She would sit in the sunshine and enjoy watching us.

"We would spend our days with her in the summer months and she was always buying us wee treats and ice lollies, things we weren't allowed at home.

"When we were sick and off school, we would stay with her and instead of feeling sick, you would feel like a queen because she would treat you so well.

"She was so passionate about life and so loving, such a very Godly woman.

"All the values she had, she really instilled them in all of us. She was a role model and a lady I am extremely proud to have called my grandmother."

Victoria, a PR and public affairs consultant, decided to honour her grandmother and use her professional skills to help other people with potential pancreatic cancer to get a better chance of survival through early diagnosis of the disease.

Victoria helped organise an event at Stormont earlier this month, when Pancreatic Cancer UK launched its Diagnosis Manifesto for Northern Ireland report. The 10 point action plans to tackle the disease and improve detection.

The team met MLAs Tom Buchanan, Jo-Anne Dobson, Kieran McCarthy, Basil McCrea, Oliver McMullan and Cathal O Hoisin, as they highlighted the charity's plans to raise awareness of the disease in Northern Ireland over the course of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in November.

Victoria added: "Every year there will be over 200 people diagnosed with the disease, but there is only one pancreatic cancer specialist nurse for the whole of the province.

"That's something that needs to be addressed as well but, more importantly, I would urge people to see their GP as soon as possible and push for their concerns to be addressed as soon as possible."

David Park, Pancreatic Cancer UK's head of policy and campaigns, described the survival rate in Northern Ireland as "appalling".

He added: "GPs must also receive better training about the disease and more effective tools to help them recognise the signs, because we know the sooner people are diagnosed, the longer they are likely to live.

"We also need improved care in Northern Ireland - all too often patients tell us they feel isolated and it is difficult to find the right information and support after they are diagnosed.

"We simply must tackle this disease as an absolute priority, otherwise people across Northern Ireland will continue to be diagnosed too late and die too soon."

Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month starts on November 2 with a launch at Stormont hosted by Jo-Anne Dobson MLA. For further information visit

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