Colour Me Purple
It seems odd that a balmy late spring month when the flowers are blooming, the air temperature is rising and most of us are planning our summer holidays, should begin with reminders of death. All Hallows, All Saints and All Souls days marked the beginning of November. In Finland they call it ‘marraskuu’, meaning ‘month of the dead’.
November is a time of juxtapositions for many Australians, particularly Christians, as a consequence of our being at the ‘wrong end’ of the world, or the antipodes. I’m sure it must feel a lot more in tune with the calendar to be focusing on the dead as the days shorten in the Northern Hemisphere. So many of our traditions in Australia are inherited from other places and sit somewhat awkwardly in our physical environment.
Worldwide, November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and to my mind this fits comfortably. My father, Brian O’Neill, was one of about 3,000 Australians diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2018. Like most Australian families, mine had not been very aware of this illness until it hit us. My father passed away in March 2019, the day after I was elected to represent the seat of Coogee, and just four months after his diagnosis. This was in line with the life expectancy for people with this disease – the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is a measly 8.7 per cent.
Pancreatic cancer is the tenth most common cancer in both men and women in Australia and the fifth most common cause of cancer death overall, and it is predicted to be the third most common within the next decade. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer has only improved very slightly in recent years and a major factor is late diagnosis, when the disease is often already locally advanced or metastatic.
In the remaining days of November, one practical thing we can all do to assist in combating this disease is to spread awareness of its symptoms. Most of us, including many GPs, have limited knowledge of the disease. The only medium-term symptom my father displayed was a very sore back, followed by abdominal pain, loss of appetite and weight loss. The Cancer Council of Australia lists these and other symptoms on their website. Please be aware and spread the word.
We can also support medical research. Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips is the head of the Pancreatic Translational Research Group at the University of New South Wales. Phoebe and her team are focused on developing new ways of destroying tumour cells in the pancreas, which are very resistant to chemotherapy. Our help has never been more needed, especially since COVID-19 has stripped away funding for this enormously important research. You can make a tax deductible donation by visiting alumni.unsw.edu.au/Giving/MED/PPCRF and selecting Phillips Pancreatic Research Fund from the drop down menu. Donate a dollar, run a fundraising barbecue at your club, hold a gold coin day at your school… every dollar counts. If you send me your photos I’ll post them on social media to publicise your efforts!
Raising awareness of pancreatic cancer and its symptoms, making a tax deductible donation to pancreatic research, supporting a friend dealing with this dreadful disease or even just wearing purple, the official pancreatic cancer colour, are some of the ways we can honour the old souls and try to make a difference for the living, while we get ready for the silly season!