24 Mar 19
Mike, Martin and Rachael (Picture: Rachael Harland)
Returning home from holiday, Rachael Harland had decided to stop off to see her dad.
Her parents had divorced when she was eight and she lived in North Yorkshire near her mum, while her dad lived in Berkshire.
Still incredibly close, she tried to spend time with him when she could and she couldn’t wait to see him in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow.
But when her flight landed, she couldn’t find her dad anywhere.
Taking a walk around, she realised she’d missed him because he was bent over in pain.
He explained that his doctor told him he had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and had started a special diet but the pain just wasn’t going away.
The family had no idea that Martin’s pain was actually pancreatic cancer and just nine months later, he would die at the age of just 55.
Rachael and Martin (Picture: Martin Harland)
Now Rachael, 28, and her brother Mike, 24, are fighting to raise awareness of the condition described as a silent killer.
Most people with the condition don’t experience symptoms until it has progressed too far.
Only 3% of people who develop pancreatic cancer survive. Three in four people with the condition die within a year of diagnosis – the lowest survival rate of all common cancers.
Rachael is now speaking out to try to make a change and ensure that people with pancreatic cancer are classed as an emergency and receive treatment within 20 days of diagnosis.
Rachael tells Metro.co.uk: ‘People haven’t heard about pancreatic cancer. I admit we hadn’t before dad was diagnosed.
‘He was fit and healthy and only in his 50s and his doctor thought he had IBS. We knew something was up but we never imagined it would be cancer.
‘By the time he got treatment, it was too late. We can’t bring our dad back but we want to demand faster treatment and to raise awareness of the symptoms to prevent this happening to anyone else.’
After spending a few days with her dad on that initial trip, Rachael went back up North, promising to see him again soon.
In two weeks, Martin deteriorated drastically.
Rachael says: ‘Mike went to see dad and a few days later he called me and said he thought there was something really wrong.
‘In about two weeks, dad had lost about a quarter of his body weight. He had gone back to the doctor and they realised it was was more serious.’
Martin Harland (Picture: Rachael Harland)
Facing a two to three week weight for a scan on the NHS, Martin decided to pay for a private scan and a few days later, on 4 May 2017, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
‘It was a huge shock. Dad was really healthy and we never thought it would be cancer. He was only 54, which is the young end of the spectrum for pancreatic cancer.
‘We used to joke about dad being a hypochondriac so we felt quite betrayed by what had happened to him and that they had missed something so vital,’ she says.
Rachael and Mike were determined that their dad could fight this – he agreed to chemotherapy and they looked at surgery, including specialist nano knife surgery that was not available on the NHS. They raised over £11,000 for the treatment.
But just on his second session of the intensive chemotherapy, Martin had a reaction to the drugs and suffered a heart attack.
He was told that the treatment could continue after a two week break but they would have to give him much lower doses.
She explains: ‘The chemotherapy had only given him a 5% chance of reducing the tumour.
Martin Harland (Picture: Rachael Harland)
‘We tried to say to him that he could be in that 5% but when he had that reaction they had to give him smaller doses over a longer period of time and it wasn’t as strong.
‘It really knocked him and delayed his treatment.’
During that time, Martin started to deteriorate quickly. He lost a lot of weight and was struggling to eat because of the position of the tumour.
After the first round of chemotherapy, the family were told that the tumour had grown around an artery and it was now stage four, meaning there was nothing more they could do. Unfortunately it was no longer operable.
Rachael adds: ‘It was a massive shock to us – he seemed to be ok and we thought it would be like stage two.’
In the months that followed, Rachael and Mike tried to do as much as they could to spend time with their dad.
He continued to suffer complications, including a gall bladder infection and sepsis, which left him very weak.
With Christmas approaching, they knew it would probably be the last one they would spend together.
‘He was losing his way with everything,’ Rachael says. ‘He came home and he was just so ill.
‘Just before Christmas, he was taken back into hospital. He had lost about half his body weight at that stage. We would go away for a week and come back and he would be worse.
Martin’s last Christmas (Picture: Rachael Harland)
‘We had planned Christmas as a really big thing. He loved Christmas. It was his favourite time of year. He discharged himself and got home for Christmas day. That day he was like a new person. He was lively and he ate a bit more.
‘We knew it would be the last Christmas but we just didn’t want to address it.
‘On Boxing Day, he sat down with us and said “When I am not here, this is what I want you to do.”
‘It was really hard to accept but we knew we needed to talk about it.’
On New Years Eve, Martin was taken back into hospital and Rachael and Mike were told he had just weeks left.
Martin decided he wanted to die in a hospice, rather than at home and the family supported his decision.
He was taken to Thames Hospice and Mike and Rachael knew they had to prepare themselves.
Rachael says: ‘Hospital just wasn’t the place for him but it was hard going to a hospice knowing that that meant.
‘I remember getting a call from him and he said “Rach, they are moving me to a hospice, does this mean it’s the end?”
Martin, Mike and Rachael in Harrogate for Christmas (Picture: Rachael Harland)
‘I didn’t have the heart to say yes.’
Martin was very weak, frail and in a lot of pain but he wanted to maintain a sense of independence.
Sadly on 20 January 2018, he had a fall while going to the bathroom and hit his head.
Rachael explains: ‘They asked him if he wanted to go to hospital as there could be a bleed but at that stage, he knew the trip to hospital would be too much and they wouldn’t be able to do something.
‘Seeing that happen, we knew it was getting to the end. We had a talk and we said: “Do you know what is going to happen?” He said: “Yes I do but I just don’t want to die.”
‘We told him we didn’t want him to either. It was a horrific time. To see your dad so poorly at 55 years old was just horrendous.’
Preparing themselves, Mike and Rachael decided to speak to the hospice about exactly what would happen when he came to the end.
She says: ‘I went to the doctor and said I didn’t want to be deluded. I thought we had days left.
[metro-fact-box title=”What are the symptoms of pancreatic cancer?” colour=”blue” icon=”exclamation”]
Tummy (abdominal) and back pain
Unexplained weight loss
Loss of appetite
Changes to bowel habits – including steatorrhoea (pale, smelly poo that may float), diarrhoea (loose watery poo) or constipation (problems emptying your bowels)
Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes, dark urine and itchy skin)
Recently diagnosed diabetes
Problems digesting food – such as feeling full quickly when eating, bloating, burping or lots of wind
Feeling and being sick (nausea and vomiting)
Pancreatic Cancer UK
‘We asked what we should expect and she told us about the death rattle, that the breathing changes and that the hearing was the last thing to go.
‘We had that conversation that afternoon, after the fall, and I knew something wasn’t right but we weren’t able to stay overnight.’
At 2am that morning, the siblings received a call to say they needed to get back to the hospice as soon as they could as Martin was getting worse.
She says: ‘I have never driven to fast in my life. We got straight back and we got there and the nurses were running towards us. We knew we had to prepare ourselves.
‘The fall could have accelerated it, we don’t know but on 21 January, he passed away at 7.15am.’
Rachael and Mike were devastated and distraught that this disease had taken their dad just eight months after diagnosis.
She adds: ‘We wish we could have had more time but we wouldn’t have wanted him to be in pain any more.
‘Watching him physically deteriorate in front of you was difficult
‘We are thankful that we did get time with him – we know four other people that got diagnosed after him and died before he did. I am glad we did have time to accept what would happen but it has left an enormous hole in our life.
‘I do feel like a part of us died with him.
‘All Mike and I want to do now is raise more awareness. We had never heard of this cancer and we knew nothing about it. We’ve had lots of support from Pancreatic Cancer UK but not everyone has heard about them.
‘It is a silent cancer. Quite a lot of people don’t have symptoms until it is quite late. It is just so underfunded, under researched and unknown.
‘We want to change that, for our dad and for everyone else who has died from this awful disease.’
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