Pancreatic cancer is one of the most fatal cancers in the world. In the UK, only one in 20 people diagnosed live to see another five years and one in 100 people survive beyond ten years. These figures have not changed significantly in 50 years.
Being the poor relation among cancers is something we are used to, but data published in the Lancet last week highlighted that the UK comes 47th out of the 56 countries surveyed for pancreatic cancer five-year survival, with the USA, Canada and Australia having survival rates more than double the UK’s and most EU nations far outperform the UK.
There are several reasons for the low survival rate of pancreatic cancer in the UK and these include a lack of public awareness, no effective screening test and both GPs and members of the public dismissing initial symptoms as something less serious, such as indigestion or irritable bowel syndrome.
The only potential cure for pancreatic cancer is surgery and, this is only viable when the illness is caught early enough.
Taking the plunge to put the spotlight on the ‘Cinderella’ cancer
While no early detection test exists, raising awareness of pancreatic cancer is the first step towards early diagnosis and, ultimately, to save lives.
This is why, in 2014, we took the decision to run with an advertising campaign that promptly put pancreatic cancer into people’s consciousness across the globe. We knew it was going to be hard hitting and we thought long and hard about running it at all.
The campaign depicted Andy, Kerry and Penny, three real sufferers of pancreatic cancer, saying that they wished they had another, more survivable form cancer. Right from the start, the three of them enthusiastically volunteered to take part. It was very important to us that we had real patients and not actors in the advert to give it reality, but also the integrity such a bold advert would need.
The insight was so accurate that all three patients thought the campaign had come directly from something they had said themselves. It was something that I too had wished for in the early days following my own diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2007.
From backlash to the most successful pancreatic cancer awareness campaign ever
With a budget of just £15,000, we launched the adverts in regional papers in Manchester and London, along with a video on YouTube. The initial launch of the campaign didn’t attract much attention surprisingly.
It was an ‘outraged’ commuter on the tube who snapped an image of the advert in The Metro on their phone and shared it on social media that sent the campaign global. The response to the commuter’s tweet was remarkable as it quickly went viral.
While the initial response to the campaign was negative and our team of five (at the time) were overwhelmed with hundreds of phone calls, emails and social media messages from angry members of the public from across the world, it didn’t take long for the tide to turn when people started to read beyond the shocking headline, and when our brave campaigners began to share their stories and feelings.
The backlash itself got the media’s attention. In one day, I attended 12 national TV and radio interviews, and the following day spoke to local radio across the UK. Our brave patients also took part in numerous press interviews.
A post campaign evaluation confirmed that it was extraordinary success - beyond our wildest dreams:
- Prompted awareness was 27% for all UK adults that’s around 12 million people
- Over £1 million of highest quality earned media from a £15,000 phase 1 spend
- 43% of people who recognised the campaign were more aware of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer
- Traffic on explanatory page of Pancreatic Cancer Action website up 963%
While the direct criticisms of the campaign we have received were in their hundreds, millions of people have become more aware of pancreatic cancer.
It is still early days to see the full impact that greater awareness created by the campaign has had on saving lives, however, we know that in the last few years, both the five-year survival and one-year survival rate has begun to increase. From 2010 to 2015, almost 1,000 more people were diagnosed by their GP or via the two-week wait.
Do we regret our decision to launch the campaign?
Any diagnosis of cancer is life-changing, but what’s particularly horrific about pancreatic cancer is its survival rate. Every year, 10,000 people will be diagnosed and most will be dead within 4-6 months.
The UK five-year survival of 5% is the worst survival rate of any of the 22 common cancers and compares with 97%, 85%, and 66% survival for testicular, breast and cervical cancers respectively.
This graph is shocking but does not highlight the real impact of a disease in the way three real sufferers of the disease did.
At the start of the campaign, both Andy and Kerry had a terminal prognosis and Penny had luckily been down staged to operable. Sadly, the lovely Kerry passed away only two weeks following the launch of the campaign but not before she defended the campaign and reproached the social media trolls on TV, newspaper and radio interviews, even though she was so unwell. Andy passed away the following August and thankfully Penny, the only one of the three, is still very much with us and doing very well.
It was thanks to them that many of the objectors to the campaign did a U-turn and understood what it was we were trying to achieve. Having won two IPA Gold Effectiveness Awards, the I Wish I Had campaign is to date, the most successful pancreatic cancer advertising campaign EVER, and one could argue it is one of the most successful cancer campaigns to date too. It is the campaign that keeps on giving as people still talk about it four years later.
While it was a bold decision, I believe it was right to run the adverts and I am very proud of its success. I am prouder though of the amazing Andy, Kerry and Penny, without whom we couldn’t have achieved what we have done. But, while we know that awareness of pancreatic cancer is increasing and there has been a modest uplift in funding, there is still so very much we need to do to “change the numbers’ for pancreatic cancer and have more people surviving than dying from this horrible disease.
We are still facing an uphill struggle to improve survival rates
While one year and five-year survival rates are starting to increase, and more people are being diagnosed in primary care, pancreatic cancer is still always diagnosed too late for any curative treatment as only one in ten people are diagnosed in time for surgery (the only potential we have for a cure).
In fact, recent statistics revealed that nearly half of pancreatic cancer patients don’t know they have pancreatic cancer until they end up in Accident & Emergency. 90% of those will be dead within a year. Your chances of surviving a year are three times greater should you be referred to a specialist from primary care.
To significantly improve survival rates for pancreatic cancer, we need:
To Improve awareness of pancreatic cancer symptoms
Data for 2015 has shown that the number of people newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is just under 10,000 per annum; an increase of 17% compared to 2010 and, in the same period, mortality has increased by 13%.
The rate of incidence growth has surpassed predictions made by Globocan. There are some regional variations in these numbers and overall, and possibly not surprisingly, these increases tend to be highest in areas with greatest ageing population and those that are more deprived.
We urgently need pancreatic cancer to be included in a Department of Health cancer awareness campaign and for more GPs to be aware of early symptoms of the disease.
To Campaign for the government to increase funding
What is also a factor, and why we need to put pancreatic cancer on the map, is the decades of chronic underfunding of the disease. Research spend in comparison to other cancers is pitiful. In 2015, pancreatic cancer received £8 million – and in case you think that is a lot, it makes up only 3% of overall cancer research spending.
While acknowledging there has been an increase in funding over the past two years, it is not nearly enough to make up for the decades of neglect and enormous investment still needs to be made if we are to ‘change the numbers’ for pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer charities are too small to heavily invest in research funding (although we do what we can) so we need help from government to reduce the inequalities of funding between cancer types
A pancreatic cancer audit is needed
There is variation in incidence and survival rates across the UK. We need an audit to understand where best practice is happening so we can emulate this across the UK improving standards and outcomes for patients.
While Scotland and Northern Ireland have had an audit, there has never been one carried out in England where 83% of pancreatic cancer patients in the UK reside.
While we continue to campaign for the government to support us, we will also continue to fund research into early diagnosis, launch awareness campaigns and provide accredited e-learning to medical professionals.
Quite simply, as long as we are here, and continued to be supported, we will do everything we can to get closer to the day when more people survive pancreatic cancer than die from it.
You can find out more about how you can support us by visiting www.panact.org.