Grieving daughter wants to improve detection of pancreatic cancer

Doug Hendrie

20/12/2019 1:37:50 PM

Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect and lethal, with the number of cases expected to rise. What can be done?

Theodora Boursinos
Theodora Boursinos was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer after seeing several doctors.

In May 2016, Theodora Boursinos went to a GP complaining of weight loss and bloating.
The GP suspected ovarian cancer, but those tests came back all clear and Mrs Boursinos went on her planned overseas holiday.
But the issues did not resolve. When she returned, heartburn and back pain added to her symptoms.
She was soon going from doctor to doctor. Her fifth GP sent her to emergency, suspecting an aortic aneurysm.
An ultrasound picked up the cause of Mrs Boursinos’ symptoms: a large tumour in her pancreas.
Diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, Mrs Boursinos underwent aggressive chemotherapy, but it was too late. She passed away seven months later.
In the wake of her death, her daughter Helen Boursinos contacted the Australian Journal of General Practice (AJGP), asking what could be done to improve the early detection of such a lethal cancer.
Senior medical editor Professor Stephen Margolis received Ms Boursinos’ email, which outlined the delayed diagnosis and asked whether GPs could be informed about the cancer.
‘We took her suggestion and found an appropriate author, who wrote a paper to help with diagnosis and early detection of this cancer. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early, and early diagnosis leads to much better outcomes,’ Professor Margolis told newsGP.
‘We try to be responsive to patients even though our readership is nominally GPs. Our core mission is to improve patient outcomes.’
The paper has now been published in the December edition of AJGP.
Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all main cancer types. Within a decade, it is predicted to become the second largest cause of deaths from cancer, up from fourth at present. The one-year survival rate is 20%, falling to 8% for five years.
One reason the cancer is so lethal is that there are no cardinal symptoms. The AJGP article notes that weight loss combined with abdominal symptoms or back pain should prompt an urgent CT scan.
Ms Boursinos told newsGP that her goal is to improve early detection of pancreatic cancer for other people.
‘We’re thrilled to have this article,’ she said. ‘Mum didn’t have the best experience, as it took too long for the diagnosis. We want to make sure no one else goes through that.
‘She was the fittest 71-year-old – a non-smoker who swam, walked and was healthy. We just did not see this one coming.’
Ms Boursinos acknowledges that the cancer is a hard one to diagnose.
‘I understand it’s a difficult cancer – I get it. But we have another good friend who had it picked up early and she’s still alive,’ she said. ‘Mum had no options. She went through the wringer.’ 
In the wake of their mother’s passing, Helen and her sisters Georgina and Melinda have thrown themselves into fundraising and advocacy for pancreatic cancer research.
They now host an annual dinner dance for more than 300 people, run barbecues and do charity hikes.
This year, they have raised over $30,000 for Pancare Foundation, which funds research and support.
‘We want Mum’s experience not to be in vain. That’s really important to us,’ Ms Boursinos said.
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