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Saturday 25 March 2017

Courageous patient knew survival rate was very low

Eilish O'Regan Health Correspondent

BRIAN Lenihan was well aware of the grim survival odds when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Nearly 400 people are diagnosed with the disease here annually and less than 5pc will be alive in five years, according to the best estimates.

But Mr Lenihan, whose diagnosis was made public in late December 2009, appeared to have several reasons for optimism, including his age -- then 50 -- and his general good health. He joked: "I have a very good liver, very good heart, lungs. The organs are working well."

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect and treat because it has few symptoms in the early stages and is often not found until it is advanced.

Known as the " silent killer", the first signal may be pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen which can extend to the back.

This often starts as intermittent discomfort.

Lying down or eating can make it worse; it may be relieved by sitting forward.

Other symptoms include diarrhoea, unexplained weight loss or jaundice.

Mr Lenihan was upbeat when he first disclosed that he had been suffering from stomach pains and was referred to the Mater Private Hospital in December 2009 for tests where he was given his depressing diagnosis.

He recalled his shock and how he felt like he was "on a cliff", adding: "I know it is a high-risk cancer, there have been remarkable improvements in cancer care in recent years."

The tumour was at the entrance to the pancreas and needed intensive treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Surgery, usually the only way pancreatic cancer can be completely cured, is suitable for 15pc to 20pc of patients, but was not possible in his case.

In April last year, he said the aggressive treatment was "progressing satisfactorily".

He was finally free of treatment at the end of June and in July declared he felt in "robust good health".

But he holidayed in Ireland, saying: "If there is a medical problem, I don't want to advise doctors in some remote Mediterranean country about what is wrong with me."

He climbed Mount Leinster and rang his aunt, Mary O'Rourke to tell her he had reached the summit.

Confident

By September Mr Lenihan felt confident enough to say the cancer had stabilised and that it imposed "no clear or immediate or immediate danger". But clearly his doctors, led by surgeon Gerry McEntee told him much to which we will never be privy.

In January, he was still insisting his health would not act as a deterrent when he entered the contest to be Fianna Fail leader. The tumour had reduced in size and his stamina was very good, he declared.

But in recent months he was back in hospital.

His words of January 2010 had a special poignancy yesterday. "It's a growth I intend to defeat - or it will defeat me."

Brian Lenihan: Leave your comments at Independent.ie blogs

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