'I thought stitch in my side would just go away - then I got a terrifying diagnosis'

Michael at home in Northumberland
-Credit: (Image: John Angerson)

A dad of three was left putting his affairs in order after an annoying side-stitch turned out to be potentially fatal cancer. Michael Parry was looking forward to his retirement when an annoying pain in his side refused to go away.

However, he was unprepared for the diagnosis he received when he visited his GP. Within weeks, he was being treated for pancreatic cancer - a disease so deadly that only 25% of people survive beyond a year.

He said: "It was like a bombshell going off. The minute you google it the horror stories ... it's terrifying".

Michael shared how he and his wife, Sharon had moved back to their home county of Northumberland after he retired following a lengthy career at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire. He said: "I was looking forward to a happy and stress-free life. I like to be active and busy, and hoped to be spending time with Sharon and our three children, walking the dogs and enjoying life."

But the family found their lives turned upside down in February 2023. Michael said: "I noticed a stitch in my side that didn't go away, so I went to my GP. She did some blood tests and the results suggested that something wasn't quite right with my pancreas."

"A CT scan in April showed I had pancreatic cancer. My GP broke the news to me during my appointment at the doctors surgery. Somehow I managed to drive the six miles home. My wife Sharon was waiting for me in the kitchen and I had to tell her the news."

"She then made the phone calls to tell our children. My son, Dan, wanted to come home straight away, but he was too upset to drive. I got my phone out and started to look up pancreatic cancer. It was terrifying."

Michael and Sharon
Michael's said googling pancreatic cancer was 'terrifying' -Credit:John Angerson

Michael was referred to the oncology team, but was determined to make sure his family would be OK should his treatment not go well. He said: "I made a conscious decision that if I was going to die, I would do everything I could to look after my family while I still could.

"I was busy, I got to work on the house and one afternoon I cut up a year's supply of wood, so they wouldn't have to do it if I wasn't there."

Michael met with his surgeon on May 4 who promised him: "If I can't save your life then I won't operate." Fortunately it was decided he was suitable for surgery and he underwent his operation on June 1. But as he waited he knew the clock was ticking.

He said: "I could tell that the cancer was progressing rapidly. My pain levels increased and I went from just needing paracetamol at first to manage the pain, to needing morphine by the time I was due to have my operation."

"Saying goodbye to my wife before I went down for surgery was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. But the operation was successful. My spleen was removed, some lymph nodes and 40 per cent of my pancreas."

Michael and his family
Michael and his family -Credit:Institute Of Cancer Research

He finally received the phone call he had been anxiously waiting for - his cancer was classified as stage 2b, indicating it hadn't spread extensively. This led to a gruelling seven-month journey of twelve rounds of chemotherapy.

Describing this period as "horrible" but "a necessary evil", he also revealed that he developed diabetes during the treatment. He said: "When I was originally diagnosed with cancer, my son Dan quit his job and moved in to help look after me. He worried that if he stayed down south he might not get to see me many more times if I was not going to make it. He became my very own personal fitness coach who got me ready for chemo. A lot of my recovery was down to him. He helped get me walking again after the operation – at first just 20 yards shuffling along the lane, which we increased day by day.

"When I finished the chemo in February 2024 my oncologist said although he couldn’t say definitely, they thought they’d got the cancer, and he told me to ‘make plans for the future’. And that’s what I’m doing, with a bucket list as long as my arm. Life is for living – I’ve been given a second chance. My last scan was clear. I know I’m one of the lucky few and I’m making the most of it.

"It shouldn’t be down to luck though. It was a ‘sliding doors’ moment for me. I’m so thankful that my GP was aware of the potential signs of cancer and decided to investigate - those blood tests saved my life. Had the cancer not been diagnosed early it may have been too late."

Michael at Christmas
Michael was looking forward to retirement when he developed a stitch -Credit:Institute Of Cancer Research

Michael, who is father to Matthew, Rebecca, and Danel, is throwing his support behind the Institute of Cancer Research's campaign to increase funding for research into hard-to-treat cancers. In a heartfelt video, Michael shares: "Over the last 50 years for the hard-to-treat cancers, the mortality rate hasn't improved. We've got to start focusing on the hard-to-treat cancers."

He praises The Institute of Cancer Research for spearheading progress, saying: "I feel incredibly lucky to be alive, but I know that many others are not so fortunate. We need to better understand this disease so that all people diagnosed with cancer even those that are hard to treat can have a hopeful future."

Cancer Research UK statistics reveal that each year, approximately 10,500 individuals in the UK are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, making it the country's 10th most common cancer. The survival rates are grim, with only 25% of those diagnosed living beyond a year.

Early detection significantly improves outcomes, with about 55% of patients whose cancer has not spread outside the pancreas surviving at least a year, and 25% living three years or more. However, once the cancer reaches the lymph nodes, the chances drop to 50% for one-year survival and just 15% for three years or more.

However, the outlook is significantly bleaker for those whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body prior to diagnosis. Only one in 10 survive for a year or more, and a mere one in 100 live for three years or longer.

Just only one in 10 patients are eligible for surgery to remove the cancer, which offers the best hope of a cure.

Symptoms of pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer can be difficult to identify as it might have no symptoms or those it has may not be obvious. According to the NHS the main signs to watch for are:

  • the whites of your eyes or your skin turn yellow (jaundice), and you may also have itchy skin, darker pee and paler poo than usual

  • loss of appetite or losing weight without trying to

  • feeling tired or having no energy

  • a high temperature, or feeling hot or shivery

Other symptoms can affect your digestion, such as:

  • feeling or being sick

  • diarrhoea or constipation, or other changes in your poo

  • pain at the top part of your tummy and your back, which may feel worse when you're eating or lying down and better when you lean forward

  • symptoms of indigestion, such as feeling bloated

How to donate to the appeal

A spokesperson for The Institute of Cancer Research said: "It is only by addressing all types of cancer, that we can hope to defeat this disease. Your support for our work into hard-to-treat cancers will help us continue to make more discoveries, find more cures, and save more lives."

To donate visit here. For further details of Michael's story or the Institute of Cancer Research visit here.