Northern Ireland

Pancreatic cancer services in north must be strengthened as study shows dramatic rise in cases

A new audit has shone a light on the rising number of pancreatic cases diagnosed in Northern Ireland.
A new audit has shone a light on the rising number of pancreatic cases diagnosed in Northern Ireland. A new audit has shone a light on the rising number of pancreatic cases diagnosed in Northern Ireland.

CASES of pancreatic cancer in the north have risen by 86 percent over two decades, new research has found.

An audit published on Tuesday found there were 283 confirmed cases of the disease in Northern Ireland in 2020, compared to 152 in 2001.

The findings have prompted a call by the director of the Royal College of Surgeons in NI for strengthening of services to combat the disease, as cases are "likely to continue to rise" in the years ahead.

The increase is thought to be related to factors including an ageing population, obesity and rising cases of diabetes.

The new audit was funded by pancreatic cancer charity NIPANC, with work on the study carried out by the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR), and Queen’s University in partnership with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.  

The audit, which examined cases during 2019 and 2020, is the first on pancreatic cancer to be published in the UK since the Covid pandemic, and its findings will be used in an upcoming audit of cases in England.

The majority of cases in the study - 53 percent - were diagnosed at an advanced stage, while patients faced on average a 44 day wait for an essential PET-CT scan.

Royal College of Surgeons NI director, Professor Mark Taylor, who is a consultant hepatobiliary and pancreatic cancer surgeon and NIPANC trustee, said: “We can see on the ground, how pancreatic cancer referrals are increasing, and we must strengthen our services in response.

“It is concerning the most common route to diagnosis was via emergency admissions, at 43 percent, and the majority of patients presented with advanced (Stage 4) cancer where the cancer has spread to a distant site.

"This underpins the importance of continuing in all our campaigning efforts to raise awareness of early signs and symptoms to enable timely diagnosis and treatment.”

The audit highlights the need for improvements to allow for better access to diagnostics such as scans, and for patients to be treated within 62 days of referral.

Dr Damien Bennett, NICR interim director, said: “We also want to see better access to clinical trials for NI pancreatic cancer patients in addition to a strengthening of personalised and holistic care for those who face a diagnosis of the disease.

“This audit shows that, unfortunately, most people with pancreatic cancer are still diagnosed with advanced disease, which leads to worse outcomes and poorer survival.”

Dr Bennett added: “This audit by the NI Cancer Registry was only possible with the support of NIPANC, but for audits to be effective they need to be funded to repeat on a regular basis.”

Sinéad Hawkins, the audit's lead author said: “If more patients can be diagnosed earlier and fitter, they may be able to receive tumour-reducing therapies and survive longer.  This would require increased focus from the health agencies and wider stakeholders to increase awareness of pancreatic cancer symptoms and support earlier diagnosis reducing diagnoses at hospital emergency departments.”

The Department of Health said it welcomes the audit, adding that the Cancer Strategy for NI 2022-2032, launched last year, has "the vision to ensure everyone in Northern Ireland has equitable and timely access to the most effective, evidence -based referral, diagnosis, treatment, support and person-centred cancer care".

However, the department has warned that delivering the strategy's plan remains "extremely challenging" given restrictions following the recent budget, and a spokesperson said the department was facing a funding gap of around £732m.

They added that two new Rapid Diagnosis Centres in Newtownabbey and Dungannon were also providing pathways for earlier cancer diagnosis.

Read more: Time matters in fight against 'silent' pancreatic cancer