Fleetwood MP Eric Ollerenshaw has told how his late partner’s death from pancreatic cancer inspired him to campaign to help others survive the disease.
When Eric’s partner of 35-years Michael Donoghue complained of stomach pains he took Gaviscon. But just six weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – having been admitted to A&E with an inflamed leg – he died.
Michael’s death happened five years ago as Eric was campaigning to become Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.
And it has inspired him to raise awareness of the disease since his election, including setting up the All Party Pancreatic Cancer Group.
The group has produced two reports with recommendations on how to begin to turn around a situation in which those diagnosed with the disease often have just weeks to live.
“He was 61 – again it was a bit of stomach ache, so what do you do? You go to Boots and get some Gaviscon,” says Eric.
“You look back – he was extremely tired and drawn for a year, but you put that down to being fed-up with work as he was not in pain.
“The doctor gives a prescription and it’s backwards and forwards to the doctor and suddenly I can remember he’d gone yellow and his leg had blown up and he couldn’t move.
“We went to A&E, did all the tests ....six weeks from that diagnosis to death.
“There are so many people in the same position I was. You simply make a vow to yourself – I simply don’t want anybody else to be in that position.”
Although the disease is associated with older men, it can affect young people too and women are just as likely to get it.
Eric, the former leader of the London Assembly Conservative group, and a history teacher who worked in three comprehensives, gave up work when Michael was diagnosed.
“It’s like entering a parallel universe, going to hospital for tests and backwards and forwards,” he says.
“It’s like a cancer universe. Having been in a parallel universe I said I wanted to do something about it.
“More than 8,700 are diagnosed each year of which 99 per cent will not survive the year. Every day 24 people are diagnosed in the UK.”
Eric is full of praise for the charities Pancreatic Cancer UK, Pancreatic Action UK and Pancreatic Research UK. In the way that pink is now associated with breast cancer research, purple has become the colour for their pancreatic campaigns.
Lancaster’s City Museum and Fleetwood’s Marine Hall were last year festooned with purple lights to help raise awareness of the disease.
Eric is confident there are signs of hope and a centre of excellence has been set up in Liverpool.
“There’s some movement out there – but a long way to go,” he says.
“The biggest thing is we are trying to see if there can be a national awareness campaign, like there was with prostate cancer. Because it’s not specific symptoms, it’s very, very difficult.
“The big thing is research – you need a kind of test kit but that’s not here yet. There is so much more to do – there are so many pieces in the jigsaw not in place, but I do feel we are getting the awareness.”
There remains much to do, with clinical commissioning groups’ powers and budgets under scrutiny, issues over postcode lotteries and availability of treatment, and the continued fight for recognition that a two-month survival rate extended by drugs is worth funding.
But Eric has vowed to continue the fights and says of Michael: “I hope he would be quite impressed – not just with me but all those different people. I recognise the privilege I’ve got and I think you want to use it to the best of your abilities.”