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‘Why pharmacy should join the fight against pancreatic cancer’

Ade Williams and the Bedminster Pharmacy team ran a 'Turn it Purple' event last November

Ahead of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Bedminster Pharmacy’s Ade Williams urges pharmacy teams to use their skills to improve early diagnosis of the disease

Last year, Bedminster Pharmacy’s efforts to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer were an example of the unique ways community pharmacy can deliver effective and engaging public health campaigns.

The NHS England cancer strategy identified ways to increase cancer prevention, and speed up the diagnosis of various cancers. It also encouraged local awareness-raising initiatives, to ensure more people come forward with early signs and symptoms of cancer. This is a pivotal role that most healthy living pharmacies perform very well.

Throughout the month of November, pharmacies across the UK take part in activities to help raise awareness of pancreatic cancer amongst their local communities, and many hold a ‘Turn it Purple’ event or day. One day in November last year, the local Bristol residents who turned up at Bedminster Pharmacy on World Pancreatic Cancer Day found the superintendent pharmacist donning a purple luminescent wig – as purple is the colour of pancreatic cancer awareness.

The charity Pancreatic Cancer Action has said – and I know community pharmacists will affirm – that ‘‘pharmacy is well placed to spot potential signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Pharmacy, therefore, plays a crucial role in aiding early diagnosis, which can significantly improve a patient’s chance of survival.’’

The charity’s founder, Ali Stunt, is a pancreatic cancer survivor and one of the 1% of pancreatic cancer patients who have survived more than 10 years. This is because she was diagnosed early and able to have surgery, which is currently the only cure for pancreatic cancer. Ms Stunt has a stern resolve that comes from being in a place you never wish anyone else to be, and tells her patient journey with great eloquence and grace.

Every cancer diagnosis brings great anguish and anxiety for a patient and their loved ones, and the pancreatic cancer survival statistics are particularly heartbreaking. It is the fifth biggest cancer killer in the UK, and is predicted to overtake breast cancer to become the fourth by 2030.

Yet emergency admission to hospital is most often how half of the 27 patients that are diagnosed with the disease every day find out they have pancreatic cancer. When it is diagnosed late, effective treatment is rarely an option, and therefore less than 5% of those diagnosed will survive beyond five years.

Pancreatic cancer is one disease where all pharmacists and technicians can help make a difference, irrespective of their practice setting, so it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms (see below).

What should pharmacy teams look for?

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice
  • Mid-back pain (around the area where a woman's bra strap would sit), which may be eased by leaning forward
  • Upper abdominal pain which may radiate to the back
  • New-onset diabetes (that is not associated with weight gain
  • Indigestion that does not respond to medication
  • Pale and smelly stools (caused by the presence of fat in the stools) that doesn’t flush easily.

Source: Cancer Research UK


As the name suggests, Pancreatic Cancer Action is about taking action – to gather all the best resources and skills to defeat pancreatic cancer. This is why they have identified community pharmacy as crucial partners in this effort.

Healthy living pharmacies are uniquely placed to identify the associated risk factors of smoking, diabetes, obesity, and chronic pancreatitis. Older patients, who tend to be less likely to want to ‘trouble’ anyone with some of these symptoms, have an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. As the health professionals with the most contact with this patient group, we can make sure that every contact counts.

Community pharmacy also has a well-evidenced history of championing patient education and providing brief health interventions. We pride ourselves on readily offering access to our expertise in all matters medicinal, clinical or wellbeing related.

So, what can community pharmacy teams do?

  1. Make sure the whole pharmacy team completes Pancreatic Cancer Action’s pharmacy e-learning module, which helps empower pharmacy staff and teaches the skills needed when speaking to customers who have symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
  2. Follow up on our chats with patients who present with symptoms. Early referral is a critical measure for survival, so these conversations can make all the difference.
  3. Order your Turn it Purple pack, and host a Turn it Purple event or day in your pharmacy during November. This year, November 15 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day.
  4. Advocate and support Pancreatic Cancer Action's ongoing work to access more research funding, and to develop improved diagnosis and treatment pathways for patients, using the skills and expertise offered by community pharmacy.

For my part, in addition to hosting another Turn it Purple day this year, I’m an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer Action. I work with patrons like Hugh Grant and Dr Hilary Jones to champion the ways pharmacy can help deliver the charity’s goals, and I share our expertise in the sector broadly.

At a time of multiple health needs and challenges, I believe people with pancreatic cancer will benefit from the sector rallying to answer this urgent call to action. Pharmacy provides exceptional care for our communities, and we are best suited to join the fight against pancreatic cancer. Wearing a purple wig, however, is entirely optional.

Ade Williams is superintendent pharmacist at Bedminster Pharmacy in Bristol, and an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer Action

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