Pancreatic cancer radiotherapy trial hopes to improve low survival rate

Of all the major cancers, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate - just eight percent of those diagnosed with it are expected to live beyond five years.

The Gut Cancer Foundation is helping to bring a new trial to New Zealand in the hope of improving statistics.

The Masterplan clinical trial is investigating a targeted radiotherapy called SBRT and starts recruitment in early 2021.

"We're looking to see if the introduction of SBRT is able to increase the number of people that are able to have surgery," Gut Cancer Foundation chief executive Liam Willis says. 

More than 560 Kiwis are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year.

Nyree Smith was first diagnosed in 2017 but didn't recognise the symptoms.

"I was just really, really lucky that I had a GP that had this gut feeling that something wasn't right, I cannot thank her enough, she saved my life. If she hadn't diagnosed it then, I wouldn't be here now," she says.

Ninety-two percent of people diagnosed die within five years, many within 12 months.

Smith is beating the odds.

"Yes, coming up three and a half years, I'm kicking it out of the park."

But it's a cancer which doesn't get a lot of attention and she says there's a simple reason for that - there's no-one around to talk about it.

"Most people die, that's the kicker," she says, "There's so few of us with pancreatic cancer that are here."

The pancreas sits in the back of the belly and is responsible for the production and management of insulin levels and digestive enzymes.

Symptoms of the cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Jaundice
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • New-onset diabetes.  

But it's often diagnosed too late.

"It's a very aggressive form of cancer and often it doesn't display symptoms until it starts to affect other organs. And in many cases, by that time, is it actually too late for surgery," Willis says.

Surgery is currently the only cure.

The Gut Cancer Foundation wants to see more funding for research and better treatments.

"It's really vital that we're funding research into treatments that are able to extend the life of those that are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and improve their quality of life at the same time," Willis says.

Helping more people like Nyree Smith to beat the odds.