Pancreatic cancer may be the fifth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in Australia, but according to a recent survey by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, only 15% of Australians are aware of it. This lack of awareness makes pancreatic cancer one of the most silent – and deadly – cancers.

Dr Paul Timpson, Head of Garvan’s Invasion and Metastasis Laboratory, says the most concerning aspect about the lack of awareness is that there is no screening test for the disease, few treatments are available, and the stark reality is that – once diagnosed – patients have a 95% chance of dying within the year following diagnosis.

The same Garvan Institute survey revealed some people think the pancreas is an organ that assists in the performance of the liver, kidney, heart, or brain.

In reality, the pancreas aids our digestion and contains hormones that help regulate the metabolism of sugars.

“It’s one of those organs that’s vital and without it you will die very quickly,” Dr Timpson said.

Part of the problem behind why people are unaware of the disease, which Dr Timpson describes as a “silent killer”, is because the fatality rates related to pancreatic cancer are so high, as symptoms of pancreatic cancer – such as lack of appetite, nausea, and back pains – are often mistaken for other illnesses. The current five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is 6.8%  – a result that has not improved for 30 years.

“By the time you get diagnosed, it’s likely your cancer is at an advanced stage. Like many cancers, pancreatic cancer is vicious when it spreads, and can reach the liver and other different organs quickly. Most pancreatic cancer tumours are inoperable – only about 20% of people are eligible for surgery,” Dr Timpson said.

But Dr Timpson is hopeful that with new technologies, such as Vodafone Foundation’s DreamLab app, we are closer to solving the pancreatic cancer puzzle and developing individually tailored treatments.

“The nature of our pancreatic cancer research means there is so much data to analyse. As scientists, we can’t just look at data from nine-to-five, so what happens when people go to sleep is that those mathematical problems are solved overnight. DreamLab just makes everything work faster,” he said.

Recently, research from Garvan and collaborating Institutes revealed pancreatic cancer is, in fact, four distinct diseases, each of which might respond differently to treatment. With the help of DreamLab, researchers could find new treatments for pancreatic cancer.

“This breakthrough is potentially transformative. As we begin to understand more and more about an individual’s disease, there is the potential to tailor specific drugs and treatments to patients on an individual level. Even though our knowledge has increased significantly, pancreatic cancer is still a deadly disease. With one of the highest mortality rates of any cancer, no screening test and few treatment options available, breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer are desperately needed,” he said.

A daughter’s conviction to raise awareness

While Dr Timpson continues his pancreatic cancer research in the lab, Lucinda Watson has spent the past two years tirelessly raising grassroots awareness of the disease.

Watson said the inspiration came after her father Brian Harvey Watson was diagnosed with Stage 4 inoperable pancreatic cancer – passing away from disease 11 months later.

“When my dad was diagnosed….I went on a fact finding mission to understand it but there was nothing really positive to find. I then discovered at least eight of my close girlfriends also lost their dads to pancreatic cancer. It then occurred to me that when people talk to people who have known those with pancreatic cancer, you don’t know anyone who has survived. It’s pretty stark statistics. So, my way of coping has been to try make a contribution through building awareness of this insidious disease and raising funds, and people have responded positively. I have received a lot of thanks from people for educating them on pancreatic cancer,” she said.

The Watson's family fight against pancreatic cancer

In memory of her father, Lucinda Watson (second from the left) spends her spare time raising awareness about pancreatic cancer

As part of a personal 30-day social media campaign each November, in-line with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Watson post daily facts and figures about pancreatic cancer and the pancreas. From the lush bloom of a jacaranda, to a violet reminder of World Pancreatic Cancer Day, Watson’s Facebook profile turns a swathe of purple.

Pancreatic cancer awareness month

Purple ribbons used by Garvan Institute to represent pancreatic cancer awareness month in November.

This year, she also promoted Garvan’s #twibbon campaign, which encouraged social media users to overlay their profile pic with the purple ribbon to build greater awareness of pancreatic cancer.  However, Watson’s contribution extends far beyond what’s on her Facebook page.

In 2014, she and a passionate community of advocates successfully lobbied for the government to include a chemotherapy drug called Abraxane on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme for pancreatic cancer patients.  The drug, when taken with standard general treatment, helps extend the lifespan of Stage 4 patients by six months.

At the time of her father’s journey, Watson said Abraxane was a costly drug for pancreatic cancer patients – an average cost per script was $1,300 (versus $38 for breast cancer patients, for whom the drug was generally prescribed). After the successful lobby – including a big social media push – it now costs only $6 per script.

“It was one of the biggest developments in treatment of pancreatic cancer,” she said.

Despite this significant win, there is clearly still a desperate need to speed up pancreatic cancer research to not only identify earlier detection methods but create additional treatments.

With Lucinda Watson turning the world purple, Dr Timpson digging deep into the data, and DreamLab quietly, but diligently solving problems in the night, there is hope the answers will come a lot sooner.

Download the DreamLab app now, and help solve cancer while you sleep.

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Alyssa Jones

Head of Vodafone Foundation

Alyssa Jones,
Head of Vodafone Foundation

Alyssa works at the intersection of medicine and mobile technology. Partnering with the Garvan Institute, Hello Sunday Morning, and Baker IDI, Alyssa provides tech solutions to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians.

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