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'I turned yellow like Marge Simpson': Newbury woman who survived pancreatic cancer warns others to get their symptoms checked out

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A NEWBURY woman who has survived pancreatic cancer after turning ‘yellow like Marge Simpson’ is encouraging others to be persistent with their GP.

Helen French, 60, was told the acid reflux she was experiencing was ‘probably gallstones and nothing sinister’ when she visited her doctor earlier this year.

The mother-of-two, who lives in Manor Park, said her symptoms were only taken seriously by her surgery after she started presenting with jaundice, which caused her skin and eyes to turn yellow.

Helen French prepares for her operation
Helen French prepares for her operation

She underwent emergency surgery at Oxford Churchill Hospital in July to remove her pancreas and the tumour.

Pancreatic Cancer UK said Mrs French’s case is ‘exceptionally rare’ as only 10 per cent of people diagnosed with the deadly disease can be operated on.

“I first went to my GP about heartburn, acid reflux and feeling full in April 2021. I was prescribed some medication and told it was probably gallstones and nothing sinister,” she said.

Helen French recovering in hospital after surgery
Helen French recovering in hospital after surgery

Mrs French’s story comes as a poll carried out by the charity found that almost a quarter of people would wait three months or more before going to a GP with symptoms of the disease.

The average survival rate across Europe is just five per cent, with one per cent living for 10 years or more after diagnosis.

Symptoms include bloating, light stool colour, itching and dark urine. But because they are vague, it is often hard to pick up, the charity said.

The grandmother-of-two had not told her family about her symptoms, but on her 60th birthday, her daughters realised something was wrong when her usually hearty appetite was missing.

“My grown-up children had taken me to a fantastic Michelin-star restaurant to celebrate and things took a dramatic turn,” the business analyst said.

“I found I could hardly eat a thing, which made me feel absolutely terrible. I started to feel so unwell, I couldn’t eat the meal and was sick.”

Daughter Laura Verney, 30, said: “We were so worried about her. She usually enjoys eating out and, despite the occasion, didn’t look like herself. We encouraged her to go back to the doctors the following week.”

Helen French before she went in for life-saving surgery
Helen French before she went in for life-saving surgery

Mrs French did go back to her doctor and was waiting for a referral when, a few weeks later, her skin started to change colour.

Mrs Verney had invited the family around to meet her newborn baby when they noticed Mrs French was looking unwell.

She said: “At first we thought mum looked well, she was looking slim and tanned but closer up we realised her skin was sallow and the whites of her eyes had turned yellow. We knew this couldn’t be normal and sent her upstairs to call 111.”

Helen French with her daughters and granddaughter after surgery
Helen French with her daughters and granddaughter after surgery

Mrs French said: “I initially thought I had just caught the sun or it was the lighting in my house, but as each day went on I become more yellow. I looked like Marge Simpson.”

The next day, at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon, she underwent a series of blood tests and a CT scan, which revealed a mass on her pancreas.

“I didn’t want to believe it was cancer to begin with and hoped it was just a growth,” she said.

“It was scary because in myself I felt fine. I was going through the stressful process of moving house at the time. The jaundice had become unbearably itchy but I thought it might just be allergies from the pollen.”

Her case was referred to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, where she was told that, luckily, due to how early her symptoms had been caught and because of her normal BMI, they were able to operate.

She underwent an emergency operation – known as a Whipple procedure – to remove the tumour.

“It was scary, but I didn’t have time to think about it,” she said.

“I had an eight-hour operation and, despite being wired up to drips and goodness what else, I was back up on my feet the following day after surgery.

“I can’t express how grateful I feel to be alive. I was amazed by the speed and amount of planning that went on behind the scenes to get me into surgery. It absolutely blew me away.

“I feel so very fortunate to be one of the very few people to receive an early diagnosis and able to have surgery for pancreatic cancer.

“I now want to encourage as many people out there as possible to get help or advice if they are worried about pain in the stomach coupled with continual acid reflux which doesn’t go away with medication.

“I was initially told it was ‘probably gallstones’, which was enough to reassure me but not my daughters, who insisted I pushed for further tests.

“Being persistent can save your life.”

Helen French is raising money for charity as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, through a series of walks throughout November.
Helen French is raising money for charity as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, through a series of walks throughout November.

A spokesman for Pancreatic Cancer UK said: “This case really stresses the importance of early diagnosis.”

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of any common cancer in the UK. More than half of patients die within three months of diagnosis.

About 80 per cent of people are diagnosed when the cancer is at a late stage and treatment is no longer possible.

The charity said early diagnosis was ‘essential’ to give people the best chance of survival.

Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, added: “We do not want people to panic if they have some or all of these symptoms, because most people who do will not have pancreatic cancer. But it is absolutely vital that people learn more about this disease, talk to their loved ones and their GPs, and help us end the culture of silence around the deadliest common cancer in the UK.”

Mrs French is now raising money for the charity as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, through a series of walks throughout November. Visit her fundraising page at https://bit.ly/2ZRp45v

For help and advice about the pancreatic cancer, contact Pancreatic Cancer UK’s free support line on 0808 801 0707.

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