Tracey Spicer on the rarely spoken about form of cancer that took her mother's life.

Nobody knows what killed my mother.

Actually, that’s an exaggeration. But it’s pretty close. Only one-in-seven Australians is aware of pancreatic cancer.

Perhaps it’s because 83 per cent of us aren’t sure what this odd-shaped organ does. For many years this lobular gland – which looks a little like a tadpole – was nicknamed the “hermit of the abdomen”. Its purpose was a medical mystery.

Tracey Spicer as a child with her Mum and sibling. Image: Supplied. 

Admittedly it’s a tad tough to say, “the pancreas secretes enzymes for digestion, and hormones to metabolise sugars”, in an engaging ‘grab’ on commercial television.

To use the media’s vernacular, it’s not ‘sexy’ enough for a story. Breast cancer is easier to imagine because – as one News Director told me – “Everybody loves looking at tits”. A flesh-hued tadpole doesn’t quite cut it.

So, when Mum was feeling fatigued, looking jaundiced, and losing weight, she put it down to working long hours and turning 50. It was only when she found a lump in her neck that we went to the hospital for an X-Ray. (Post continues after gallery.)

The screen was dappled in snowflakes – unusual for a sunny day. “You have cancer here, here, here, here, and here,” the oncologist said, pointing to her viscera. An army was invading her insides. “I’m afraid it’s terminal. I’d say you have seven months to live.”


Shock is a funny thing. It seizes your brain. Time seems to stop.

“Oh well, might go outside for a smoke. No point stopping now,” Mum said, her humour as dark as the diagnosis.

The survival rate hasn’t budged in more than 30 years: Barely seven per cent of patients are alive five years later. Pancreatic cancer is actually four distinct diseases, which respond differently to treatment.

For Mum, it was purely palliative: She died seven months to the day.

I wish I was among the one-in-seven who knew what a bloody pancreas was. I wish I was aware of the symptoms, which include blood clots, upper stomach pain, and depression. And I wish we’d unearthed this deeply ‘unsexy’ tumour earlier.


Image: Supplied

But it’s pointless trying to turn back the clock. What I can do is look forward to new hope.

At the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, scientists are doing whole genome sequencing on pancreatic tumours, with the potential to tailor specific treatments to patients individually. These boutique therapies will save lives.

However, in the words of Professor David Thomas, “a greater consumer awareness is needed to raise the investment for the research teams”.

Last month, our son and daughter were among a group of children asked by Purple Our World to define a pancreas. The answers are – frankly – hilarious, including “a spaceship”, “a bird”, and a “Ninja Turtle”.

But the message is deadly serious.

This lack of understanding means Taj and Grace never knew their grandmother.

Today (November 17) is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. Add a Twibbon to your social media profile and use the hashtag #PancreaticCancer. This small act – which will take a couple of minutes – could add years to someone’s life.

We’d like everyone to know what killed my mother.

Tracey Spicer is journalist, presenter and Patron of the Pancreatic Cancer Alliance. You can follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here

For more about the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Garvan Research Foundation, please visit Garvan is a member of the Pancreatic Cancer Alliance, a unique collaboration of organisations and individuals committed to raising awareness of pancreatic cancer in Australia.

Image: Instagram/@traceyspicer