Half of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are not being prescribed “essential” tablets on the NHS, leaving them at risk of starvation, a charity has warned.
Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) tablets are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for those with pancreatic cancer to help them tolerate treatment better and manage severe symptoms of the disease such as pain, diarrhoea, and weight loss.
New research on 1,350 pancreatic cancer patients from the University of Birmingham has found that without the tablet, patients cannot digest food because the cancer stops the pancreas producing enzymes needed to digest and absorb nutrients.
Marie Morris, 44, who lost her mother to the disease in April 2020, said by the end her mother was “skeletal”.
She added: “It’s hard to see somebody who’s confined to a bed and who can’t eat anything without vomiting.
“There was nothing left, really, maybe it (PERT) would have made a difference to the length of her life – but perhaps more importantly, also to the quality of her life.”
Pancreatic Cancer UK has launched a Transform Lives: Prescribe campaign to urge the NHS to raise awareness of these tablets and encourage prescriptions at the point of diagnosis.
It wants the NHS to implement targets to ensure more people with this type of cancer are prescribed PERT tablets regularly, arguing they improve quality of life and enable people to better tolerate life-extending treatments.
The only potential cure for pancreatic cancer is surgery, but 80% of people are diagnosed too late to have the operation.
Of the 10,000 people in the UK with pancreatic cancer, the majority are given a terminal diagnosis.
Diana Jupp, chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “Nobody should have to watch someone they love waste away from pancreatic cancer when proven, inexpensive medication is available to stop that from happening.
“It needs to become second nature to see people with pancreatic cancer and prescribe PERT tablets – in the same way an immediate link is already made between diabetes and insulin, they are just as vital.
“Health professionals care for people with pancreatic cancer with great skill and compassion year after year, but many will typically see patients with this devastating disease far less frequently than other types of cancer.
“People diagnosed with pancreatic cancer cannot wait for the expertise of specialist cancer hospitals to be shared naturally to other parts of the health service.”
Pancreatic Cancer UK said a lack of awareness is contributing to low rates of prescriptions of PERT tablets, compounded by people being treated by health professionals who do not specialise in pancreatic cancer.
Richard Wilkin, clinical lecturer at the University of Birmingham, said: “Our important research has highlighted that, despite national guidance, there is a wide variation and under-treatment with Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT).
“This is a very simple tablet that allows patients with pancreatic cancer to absorb their food and is a vitally important part of their treatment.
“Given that most patients with pancreatic cancer cannot be treated with surgery and are treated in non-surgical hospitals, where prescribing is lowest, strategies to disseminate best practice and overcome barriers to prescribing are urgently required.”