Woman's persistent hiccups turned out to be a sign of pancreatic cancer

Val Pettifer seemed perfectly fit and healthy. But that all changed within the space of a Bank Holiday weekend.

In the run-up to her 70th birthday Val’s only unusual symptoms were the odd episode of bloating and bouts of hiccups.

It turned out that a large tumour had been growing in her pancreas.

Val wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for being struck with sudden agonising abdominal and back pain on 2019’s May Day Bank Holiday, when she was rushed to A&E.

Tests revealed that Val had incurable stage three pancreatic cancer. She was offered chemotherapy but was warned that this may only extend her life for 15 to 18 months.

She’s still shocked at how quickly she went from feeling perfectly healthy to knowing she has terminal cancer.

‘I still can’t quite believe what has happened, that I was walking around with this ticking time bomb growing away silently,’ says Val.

‘I’ll admit I am afraid of what’s to come, and I’m not thinking about the end just yet. I’m not ready to leave everyone.

‘I still feel like a young woman at heart. Still, every extra day I have makes me thankful to wake up and still be here.’

Val has no family history of pancreatic cancer, and displayed none of the more common symptoms, such as weight loss, jaundice, or nausea.

She experienced bouts of hiccups from 2017, which became more frequent in the year leading up to her diagnosis, but thought they might be down to a food intolerance. She swapped to gluten-free alternatives after suspecting that her hiccups would often start after eating bread.

‘As soon as I swallowed the first mouthful of bread, I’d hiccup, then every subsequent mouthful, the same thing would happen,’ she said.

‘Sometimes they were so violent, I’d abandon the sandwich. I tried gluten free bread, but the same thing happened.

‘I also have a small hiatus hernia – when part of your stomach moves up into your chest – which I have had for 50 years, so I thought perhaps that could be the cause too.

‘The hiccups first started in about 2017, but were only very occasional.

‘They got more frequent in the year leading up to the diagnosis, but still – who would ever connect hiccups to pancreatic cancer?

‘The symptoms were all so mild that they weren’t enough to go to the doctors with. Even if I’d gone and said I get hiccups and sometimes bloat, I doubt that would have got me referred for any tests or scans.’

Cancer Research states that hiccups can occur when the stomach becomes extended and bloated, or a tumour is pressing on the diaphragm. In Val’s case, both were happening.

Most of us would dismiss hiccups as nothing serious, just as Val did.

It was only on Friday 3 May, after experiencing diarrhoea and abdominal pain, that Val went to visit the GP.

There she was told she might have diverticulitis, a digestive condition affecting the bowel, and was advised to go to A&E if the pain became worse. It did, so on the following Monday Val and her husband Dave headed to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

The tumour was found after blood tests and a CT scan.

‘After the scan, I was back in my room when a crowd of about eight medics came in, and asked my husband to take a seat, which is never good news,’ said Val.

‘For the first time, they referred to the mass as a tumour and told me I needed a biopsy to find out if it was malignant or benign.

‘They also said that, as it had wrapped around various arteries and nerve bundles, it was inoperable.

‘Hearing that was just my worst nightmare come true, but strangely, I wasn’t really feeling emotional – I was still clinging onto the hope that the tumour would be benign, or they’d work out there was something to be done after all.’

Unfortunately the results revealed that the 5cm by 3.8cm adenocarcinoma tumour was malignant, classed as stage three advanced cancer.

Val’s tumour hasn’t spread to any other organs, but its position means it’s inoperable.

She was told that chemotherapy was an option, but this would only extend her life for 18 months. If she went without, she would have less than six months less to live.

‘It was so big that doctors told me it must have been growing for quite some time – yet I’d had no idea,’ said Val. ‘That’s why they call pancreatic the silent cancer.

‘When I spoke to the doctor, I was told that, without chemo, I’d have less than six months, whereas with it I could have between 15 and 18.

‘It’s still not enough, but it’s better.’

Val now faces 12 cycles of chemotherapy, which will bring with it side effects including hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and ulcers.

If the treatment shrinks the tumour enough, surgery could be an option.

For now Val remains positive, and is working with Pancreatic Cancer UK to raise money towards vital research.

She’s sharing her story to raise awareness of the disease and call for early screenings.

She said: ‘More research desperately needs to be done to help with early detection. We have come a really long way with other cancers, and have screening for things like breast and prostate, but nothing for pancreatic.

‘Long term, I am not going to survive this, but I hope changes come for people in the future.

‘I still find it hard to believe this is happening. Sometimes, I feel well and can almost forget about it – then I get a twinge or ache, and it brings it all home.

‘Still, I have never been a panicker, and prefer to look at the positives. I never imagined this would happen to me, but with my great circle of friends and the support of my family, I still have a lot to be thankful for.’

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