Omagh woman to take on open water challenge in bid to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer

IN a bid to increase awareness of pancreatic cancer and generate funds for a vital charity, Omagh woman Kerry Irvine - who lost her husband to the disease 10 years ago this month - will take to the open water in freezing temperatures in a brave challenge called 'Changing the Numbers'.

Kerry's husband Noel sadly passed away on November 25, 2011, at the age of 54, just seven months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Since then, Kerry has been working tirelessly to raise awareness of the disease, and to mark the 10th anniversary of Noel's passing, she will complete 24 outdoor swims throughout the month of November - three of which will be done without gloves or boots!

The majority of her swims will take place at Gortin Lakes, but Kerry is also going to test the water in five different locations.

There is a reason behind each number. So why 24 swims?

"Noel has been gone 10 years, which is why I wanted to do something a bit different. If you times 24 by 10, you get 240 which is approximately the number of deaths per year in Northern Ireland due to pancreatic cancer," Kerry explained.

"I will do three without boots and gloves because of the fact three out of five people could actually be eligible for curative surgery if they were diagnosed early enough.

"And five new locations comes from the fact pancreatic cancer is the fifth biggest cancer killer in Northern Ireland."

Is enough being done to tackle pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland?

"Absolutely not," responds Kerry.

"It is horrendous the number of people who are having treatment and surgery postponed. It's just not good enough.

"Covid-19 has made a bad situation worse. Around two per cent know the symptoms of pancreatic cancer in Northern Ireland, and for me, that is just mindblowing.

"I and others have been shouting from the rooftops now for 10 years and it feels like it's an uphill slog. Not just with the general public but with the medical professionals as well."

"I totally understand that it is not something they see every week of their career. I get that they may only possibly see a case of pancreatic cancer every few years. But at the end of the day, they're missing the signs. I know the symptoms can be attributed to so many different things, but I think that GPs need to start listening to their patients. And patients need to become better advocates for their own health, to be able to speak up and tell their GPs that they know their body and they know something isn't right.

"Don't be afraid to mention pancreatic cancer to your GP because we're all guilty of saying what we think."

The figures make for stark reading: according to the charity NIPANC Northern Ireland has one of the worst five-year survival rates in the world, ranking 32nd out of 36 countries; three out of five patients could have had surgery to cure their pancreatic cancer but were diagnosed too late; pancreatic cancer research receives five time less government funding than other charities..

"Fifty per cent of cases are diagnosed in A&E. That is not good enough," continued Kerry.

"It's not just an old person's disease or something that affects men, it's 50-50."

Has any progress been made to tackle pancreatic cancer in NI since Noel passed away 10 years ago?

"Very little," says Kerry.

"I'm still hearing stories of families getting absolutely no support or information and having to wait for tests and everything else.

"Ten years ago, I had to chase appointments. Noel was told he was terminal very early on and he still had to wait almost three months for chemotherapy.

"Things are not changing. We all have to know the signs and symptoms because time really is of the essence."

Campaign

The local charity NIPANC - the organisation Kerry is raising money for - launched the #TimeMatters campaign to mark World Pancreatic Cancer month recently.

Time matters if you are experiencing the following symptoms: low mood or depression, yellowing of the skin or eyes, pain on eating/fullness, fatigue, upper abdominal pain, mid-back pain can radiate to stomach, indigestion, not responding to prescribed medicine, pale and smelly stools that don’t flush easily, diabetes, new onset not associated with weight gain, unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite.

"No cancer is good, but with pancreatic cancer, if it is diagnosed early enough for surgery, the chances of survival increase ten-fold."

Although 10 years have passed, Kerry said her grieving process for her late husband Noel continues.

"Noel was given a time of four to six months, but he actually had seven months. My children were five and eight at the time. As a mummy, you're supposed to be able to fix everything, but this time I couldn't.

"I was saying goodbye to Noel every single day for seven months because I didn't know when it was going to come. I could see his health deteriorating, and it doesn't matter how much you think you're preparing yourself... let me tell you, when you're in the hospital holding your loved one, you're never prepared for them to take that last breath.

"This year has - to put bluntly - kicked my ass. You never get over it. And anyone who says time is a healer... no. You deal with it better, you learn to ride the wave, but sometimes that grief monster just eats you up."

Kerry began to swim in the open water back in March, and she has found this form of exercise to be very helpful for her mental health.

"I know exactly what Noel would have thought about it - he would have called me absolutely bonkers," said Kerry.

"As soon as my feet hit the water, whatever is sitting on my shoulder disappears. Many times in the water I have bawled my eyes out. It is definitely a huge stress relief, the best anti-depressant. I have suffered with my mental health since Noel's diagnosis, but I have to say, I'm probably in the best shape mentally for a long, long time. That is down to the water.

"The number of people who are taking to the water is just phenomenal. Whatever you are going through, the water definitely helps."

On a busy month of fundraising, Kerry, along with her colleagues from NIPANC, are also walking a collective one million steps through the month of November, representing the approximate number of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year worldwide.

Kerry is asking people to support her challenge and to raise money for NIPANC. If interested, visit: 

www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kerrywildswim

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