Pancreatic cancer patient raising awareness of deadly 'forgotten cancer'

Here's a startling fact - 15 Kiwis are diagnosed with a gut cancer every day. 

That's nearly 6000 Kiwis every year, which makes gut cancer the most common type of cancer in New Zealand.

There are actually seven different types of gut cancers and pancreatic cancer is the most deadly.

This month is Pancreatic Awareness Month and to raise awareness and much-needed funds for this cancer, a special gala is being held in Auckland this Friday night.

Cancer patient Nyree Smith always arrives at her three-monthly date appointment with an easy smile, a quick laugh and a warm embrace. 

"My favourite nurses, oh yeah," Smith said.

The easy banter was a stark contrast to the reality of this situation.

Smith is dying. She has terminal stage four pancreatic cancer.

So she's here for a scan. Poked, prodded, injected and inspected to see if the cancer has spread. 

"I look at it differently. And yes I fear death," Smith said. 

"I don't fear death so much for myself, I fear death for those I leave behind. That's far more important to me. 

"For me, there's nothing I can do about it. It will get me, I know that."

Smith was diagnosed more than five years ago. She had no symptoms, just a bossy new GP who insisted she be tested

"She had a gut feeling and she went for it. She pushed and pushed and pushed until I kept going for further tests," Smith said.

She's since undergone surgeries, one of which lasted 7.5 hours, and had countless rounds of chemo. 

Smith did beat cancer - but then it returned.

Based on the stats, Smith should already be dead. 

"We die too quickly," she said. 

"The average survival after being diagnosed is still between four and nine months. It's tough watching people you meet and you develop these amazing relationships with some of these people. And them passing really quickly.

"It hurts, and makes me aware of my own time span."

Because the survival rates are so low, and the time from diagnosis to death can be so quick, there aren't many support groups for gut cancer patients or funding-raising events - like there are for prostate and breast cancer. 

"For every nine people that lose their life to breast cancer, 28 people survive. That's brilliant. That's 28 people out there with their voices and advocates for the cause," Gut Cancer Foundation executive officer Liam Willis said. 

"For every nine people who lose their life to pancreatic cancer, just one person survives. That's why it's so important to raise awareness for this disease and we fund the research that will change these outcomes."

"I have always called myself the forgotten patient and the forgotten cancer," Smith said.

She's determined to change this.

Smith is organising a big gala, the Pan Can Gala, in Auckland on Friday night. It's to raise money and awareness for pancreatic cancer. The target is more than $100,000.

"If I can save one person's life, I would be happy," Smith said.

She has the backing of Willis and Jo Davidson, who lost her mum Pip to pancreatic cancer 10 years ago.

Davidson knows just how brutal this cancer can be.

"She was literally gowned up and being wheeled into theatre and she got her lung X-rays back and they said, 'Sorry it's too late, the cancer has spread to her lungs, we're not going to operate'," Davidson said.

Willis has nominated Smith for the Global Volunteer Award at the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition Summit. She won, receiving it while on holiday, with her family, living her best life.

But even better, her latest test results were good, giving her even more time to make a difference

"If I can help, that's my legacy, if I can help, I will be happy," Smith said.