While the nation is gripped by Coronation Street’s tragic pancreatic cancer storyline, for Lancaster MP Eric Ollerenshaw it echoes a very personal tragedy.
He tells the Lancaster Guardian’s NICK LAKIN how this has fuelled his campaign to make a difference for sufferers – and how actress Julie Hesmondhalgh is supporting efforts to raise awareness about this “silent killer”.
Four years ago, Lancaster MP Eric Ollerenshaw lost his partner of 35 years to pancreatic cancer.
The “bombshell” of finding out that Michael Donoghue was terminally ill came just six weeks before his death.
“By the time they got round to finding out what it was, it was too late to do anything,” said Eric.
“We’d been together for 35 years, eight months and seventeen days. And he was gone in six weeks.”
Eric, 63, said that he considered ditching politics altogether when Michael, who worked in retail and was aged 61, died in 2009, but ultimately his overriding thought was “I want to make a difference here”.
The Conservative MP and former history teacher, who has represented Lancaster and Fleetwood in Parliament since May 2010, now chairs an All Party Parliamentary Group that recently produced a major report on pancreatic cancer following an inquiry.
The group has set out to challenge preconceptions about pancreatic cancer, mainly wrongly held beliefs that it is very rare and is an “old man’s disease”.
The disease, which killed Apple founder Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze, is currently receiving national exposure on TV, as Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper - played by Julie Hesmondhalgh - took her own life (in Monday’s episode) due to the illness.
Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cancer killer in the UK, with 4,000 deaths per year, 35 per cent of which are people under the age of 65.
It also occurs equally in men and women, yet it only receives one per cent of cancer research funding and survival rates have not changed in 40 years. Eric said: “Twenty per cent of people could actually be operated on, because you can remove the pancreas, but it’s usually diagnosed very late, and then it can be literally a matter of weeks.
“With other cancers there have been big improvements in diagnosis and treatment, but there’s been nothing with regard to pancreatic cancer.
“Symptoms can be stomach and back pains, but quite often it can be a silent killer with little or non specific symptoms. It’s always been seen as a low priority in terms of research because it was considered quite rare, but there’s got to be an easier process to get people diagnosed quicker.” Causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully understood but risk factors include family history, age, smoking and diet.
Eric said that other countries had better ways of dealing with pancreatic cancer, such as Germany, whose population has electronic health records that follow them everywhere they have treatment. “What struck me was how young some victims were, some even in their 20s. With Michael it started with stomach aches. So after a while he went to the chemist, and tried different things, which didn’t work, and then he started going to the GP, when he had never really been before.
“He thought that whatever it was would just go on its own accord, and he was reluctant to keep going to the doctor, but there was little improvement so the hospital did some tests at which point Michael became more seriously ill.
“We were told by a doctor that it was pancreatic cancer but the consultant wasn’t sure what the survival rates were.
“I packed in work and it was six weeks of nursing Michael at home. You could see the deterioration daily. It was such a bombshell when he died so quickly six weeks later.
“When something like that happens you just think, do you give everything up? But then you think, ‘I want to make a difference’. I began to think about the disease, what the survival rates are, and decided to set up an all party group and we set off then with the inquiry.
“The simple goal is to get early diagnosis. I don’t want anyone to find themselves in my position, which is losing your partner within six weeks. I want to put something back and make things potentially better for someone else.”
Alex Ford, chief executive of the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK said: “We are very grateful for the support that we’ve had from both Eric and Julie, the actress that plays Hayley in Coronation Street.
“We believe there has been a huge impact in terms of the awareness raised as a result of the pancreatic cancer storyline. We also know it has been very hard for many people to watch. Julie told us that she’d been incredibly moved by the public reaction to the story and was grateful to everyone who contacted her to share stories and thoughts.”
Anyone affected by pancreatic cancer can speak to the charity’s specialist nurses on 020 3535 7099.