Pharmacy’s role in early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

Pharmacy can be key in the early diagnosis of cancer but people must feel comfortable talking about their symptoms with a healthcare professional, writes Lu Constable…

Pancreatic cancer has very low survival rate

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of any of the common cancers. Early diagnosis of the disease is vital, and yet only 10-20 per cent
of patients are currently diagnosed in time for potentially curative surgery. In those patients diagnosed and treated at early stage, five-year survival increases from under seven to around 30 per cent.

Pharmacy teams can not only spot the potential signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer but also understand the potential risks associated with the disease which may be vital in aiding early diagnosis of a patient. They can play an essential role in helping to break down the barriers to early diagnosis.

For example:

Undiagnosed symptoms

In order to aid early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, or any cancer, it is important that people feel comfortable talking about their symptoms with a healthcare professional. However, according to our recent survey people are either too busy or too embarrassed to see a GP about their symptoms.

Given that some of the symptoms of pancreatic cancer may be difficult for some people to talk about (for example, a change in bowel habit), it is important that people have a friendly and open setting to discuss these symptoms. This is why community pharmacies are so important.

In many cases, they provide a more informal and relaxed setting for people to discuss difficult issues than a GP surgery. Most pharmacies have a private consultation room so patients can have private conversations with their pharmacist.

Making appointments

We live in an age where people want immediate answers and waiting two weeks for a GP appointment just isn’t good enough. For diseases like pancreatic cancer, where early diagnosis is essential for survival, long waits for access to primary care are not good enough.

The average waiting time to see a pharmacist is only eight minutes, and in many cases considerably less.There is no other part of the NHS where this is the case. Community pharmacy can make healthcare more accessible, particularly in rural areas, it can be a health hub for the community where other areas of the healthcare system aren’t readily available. It can also serve to remind or prompt patients to make appointments to see their GPs if
concerning symptoms are reported.

Public awareness

Due to the low awareness of pancreatic cancer symptoms (currently, only 11 per cent of the UK know ‘a fair amount’ about the symptoms), people may not consider symptoms to be important and therefore delay visiting their doctor.

We also know that because the symptoms of pancreatic cancer are vague people are not likely to attribute them to anything serious and again avoid going to the doctor. This is where community pharmacies also play an important role.

Take this scenario:

A patient visits the pharmacy regularly to purchase indigestion tablets and the pharmacist also notices that the patient has been losing weight and seems fatigued. This can be a prompt to ask how they are feeling and if they are experiencing any other symptoms.

This communication is vital. We rely on patients to present to a medical
professional when something is wrong; however, this relies on the patient accurately appraising the severity of their symptoms.

A pharmacist who knows the patient and is aware of the signs, symptoms and risk factors of pancreatic cancer, can approach the patient first with a concern.

Help for pharmacy

Pancreatic Cancer Action have committed to working with pharmacy teams to help improve their knowledge of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, so that if and when a patient presents with symptoms, they feel
confident that they can help and know what to do. Our resources are available on the Pancreatic Cancer Action’s Healthcare Professional website.

Incidentally, November is the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and a great opportunity to increase disease symptom awareness in your community, where you are best placed as the highly regarded NHS outpost.

Lu Constable is Marketing and Communications Manager at Pancreatic Cancer Action.