My son died 3 years ago of pancreatic cancer – I want you to know the symptoms

Maureen with Pierce and Sons (Photo: Maureen Dougal)

“I wasn’t feeling well,” Pearce told me. “In fact, I’ve been going back and forth to the GP since October.”

I looked at my eldest son worriedly as he explained that he has been suffering from back pain, indigestion and an upset stomach for two months now.

Before that, he had not gone to doctors for years, or even decades – he didn’t need to. He was fit and well. He was jogging regularly, doing boxing, and eating a healthy diet.

It was Christmas 2017 and we met for lunch to catch up. I noticed he lost weight and looked a little down, but I would go back to his busy lifestyle.

He was married to the beautiful Katherine and they had two wonderful children, Farley and Alice. It has been in a new role at the Museum of Natural History. It was his dream job and he was over the moon, but it meant staying in London during the week, then flying home to Suffolk at the weekend.

“The doctor says it’s pressure, but I don’t feel myself,” he said.

Now, five years later, I look back on that conversation and wish and pray and beg that I could have it all over again; I can tell him to go see another doctor right away, to get a second opinion right then and there.

Because over the next few months, Pierce got worse. He lost four stones and started waking up in the middle of the night in pain.

I think, in my heart, I knew it was serious but I was still devastated when, after finally being referred for a CAT scan, he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in April 2018.

I rushed to his side. I told him, “We’ll find a cure.” “There will be a miracle.”

Piers at home with his son

Pierce and his son (Photo: Maureen Dougal)

But Pierce looked at me seriously. “You should know that I will not recover, the doctors were sure,” he said firmly. “All I want is to survive as long as possible for Katherine and the children.”

The doctors told him that the tumors were too large and too close to the vein for surgery.

I was devastated by his words, but I was so proud of his bravery. That didn’t stop us from trying though. My daughter Claire’s husband worked at Cancer Research in America and sent Peirce’s scans to colleagues around the world to see if there was any treatment anyone could suggest.

But there was none. It was very advanced.

Meanwhile, the doctors performed more examinations and biopsies and tried to build Pierce up again with high-calorie foods until he was ready for the strongest dose of chemotherapy they could give him, in an effort to shrink the tumors to extend his life.

He started it in July 2018 and it was fierce. However, after three or four days in bed, he will be back and work as best he can. He wanted life to go on as normally as possible for as long as possible.

After six months of chemotherapy, he received six weeks of radiotherapy. But it was all in vain. When he came back for more tests, instead of shrinking the tumors, they had grown.

It was the first time I’d seen him really frustrated – the treatment was so harsh, he really believed it was going to work – and it just broke my heart.


Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer

  • Indigestion
  • Back or abdominal pain
  • changes in your stools
  • Unexpected weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes and itchy skin)

If you have any of these symptoms and don’t know why you have them, contact your doctor or call NHS 111.

If you develop jaundice, go to your doctor or A&E right away.

We heard about a trial that started at the Royal Marsden Hospital but again, the tumors were very advanced. “If he had been diagnosed earlier, there would have been a chance,” the counselor told us.

These words ignited anger inside me. He should have had this chance. But instead, Pierce’s doctor thought he was too young for his symptoms to be the telltale signs of cancer, which is why it took him so long to get a referral.

Odds were, he was right. More than 45 out of every 100 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are over the age of 75. It is more common in older people. But there are always people who defy the odds, and on this occasion, that person was Pierce. In the worst way.

Over the next few months, Pearce was in and out of the hospital. He couldn’t stop vomiting. Whatever he eats, he brings it back. Doctors put him on protein drinks but the only thing he can keep him down is jelly and ice cream.

We heard about a hospital in Germany that might be able to help him – but again, they said it was too late.

Finally, in December 2019, it was agreed that he should go to a hospice in Bury St Edmunds when it was clear that Katherine needed help. It was difficult for her to keep up with her two children and a very ill husband, in addition to her work.

And once he moved in, it was the answer to all of our prayers. The staff were nothing short of angels and knew exactly how to make the whole experience as bearable as possible.

“He’s a gentleman, isn’t he?” Nurses will smile. “He never complains.”

Peirce, left, and his brother at the Museum of Natural History

Pearce, left, and his brother Alex at the Natural History Museum (Photo: Maureen Dougal)

And he didn’t. He treated his illness with dignity, and I could not have been more proud of him.

One day he said to me: “I am very lucky, Mom.” You’ve had a good life. Please do not regret anything.

On December 18, Pierce asked if Alex (his brother) and I would help him and Alex (his brother) wrap presents to give to the children and Katherine when they arrived.

It was as if he knew, because in the early hours of the next morning, Pierce woke up. “Help me, mother,” he cried, “help me.” But, of course, I couldn’t, and a few hours later, he died.

The grief was crushing. A mother should never lose her son. The whole thing seemed so surreal, but every now and then, the ending of it shocking me—that I would never pick up the phone and hear his voice again, or be able to go to him for counseling—made me cringe. pain.

The only thing I could do was try to find some courage that the docks showed and get through the days, one after the other. Katherine and I have talked and seen each other a lot and even now, three years later, we’re talking about our really low days, which we describe as being “at the bottom of the well.”

As a family we have fundraised for Pancreatic Cancer Research UK and Hospice who have looked after the docks with so much compassion.

I go back to the symptoms of the cruel disease as often as I can–when a man came to look into my kitchen and mentioned he had a bad back, I made him a cup of tea and told him about Pierce. He promised he would go straight to his doctor.

And that’s what I want. I want people to be screened earlier – diagnosed earlier. I want people to live as long as possible. Above all, I don’t want anyone to go through what my family is going through.

Pancreatic Cancer UK runs the UK’s only dedicated pancreatic cancer support line, staffed by specialist nurses, because a diagnosis of this disease can be traumatic and they want to reach it here – for patients and their loved ones.

It is confidential and free to contact. Details can be found on Pancreatic Cancer UK’s website website. The number is 0808 801 0707, or people canContact a nurse via email.

As told to Sarah Whiteley

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