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Queen’s University Belfast lead first UK trial using exercise to aid recovery from deadliest cancer

Pancreatic cancer patients in Northern Ireland will be the first in the UK to trial an innovative new exercise programme to aid their recovery from the traumatic 12-hour operation needed to save their lives.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast were awarded more than £100,000 from Pancreatic Cancer UK, the charity’s first ever investment in a research project based in Northern Ireland. The charity believes that, if it is successful, the project has significant potential to improve the quality of life for patients who have surgery, an area of research that has previously been under-developed because of the urgent need to find new treatments and improve diagnosis.

Dr Gillian Prue, Lead Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for people with pancreatic cancer in NI and we are very grateful to Pancreatic Cancer UK for their support. We hope that by undertaking a supervised exercise programme during chemotherapy patients may avoid an almost inevitable decline in function. Increasing activity levels may help patients tolerate chemotherapy treatment and reduce treatment side effects. This is the first time a study such as this has been undertaken in the UK, so we will be working very closely with our patients to ensure the programme is achievable and meets their needs.”

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival of all common cancers, with less than seven per cent of people with the disease in Northern Ireland living for five years. 

Surgery is the only cure for pancreatic cancer but it can have a traumatic impact on patients. The procedure involves removing all or part of the pancreas and making major changes to the digestive system, meaning patients can experience serious side effects - including pain, fatigue and anxiety - in addition to the effects of chemotherapy. The burden of these symptoms can damage a patient’s recovery as well their long-term health and wellbeing. 

Researchers will work extensively with local pancreatic cancer patients who have had surgery to design bespoke exercise programs tailored toward managing each individual’s symptoms. Exercise has previously been shown to benefit patients with other cancers such as breast and prostate, but the two-year study by Queen’s University will be the first time it has been trialled with those treated for pancreatic cancer.  Patients will be supported in undertaking resistance and aerobic exercise at their own pace, alongside post-operative chemotherapy. It is hoped that a successful trial in Belfast will see the project expand to other sites in the UK benefiting more patients.

Dromore, County Down resident Tom Hawthorne knows all about the impact of the operation. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2017 and quickly scheduled for surgery. He credits cycling with helping him to overcome the side effects.  Tom, 61, said: “I was told that it was going to be a pretty tough operation but at that stage I did not fully grasp what that actually meant. For me, the operation was totally devastating - it was really tough, physically and psychologically.

“From my first day out of intensive care I was determined to give it my best shot after speaking to my surgeon. From blowing that little pipe to keep the ball up, to family helping me around the corridors and friends helping me to the park, it all helped me so much. Then eventually getting back on my bike. All this for me made me so much stronger in every way and had a massive impact on my recovery. Not everyone can do it but it’s well worth doing your best. You will feel the benefit.”

Dr Chris MacDonald, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “Research into pancreatic cancer has been grossly underfunded for decades, stifling innovation and delaying the breakthroughs we so badly need to see. The potential positive impact of this project devised by the team at Queen’s University Belfast is hugely exciting and I am delighted it is our first-ever funded research in Northern Ireland.

“While it can be lifesaving, the combination of such extensive surgery followed by chemotherapy can take a heavy toll.  It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise could be key to mitigating many of the symptoms that affect a patient’s quality of life. We are determined to explore innovative ideas such as this one to ensure patients can make the fullest possible recovery.”

The research at Queen’s University Belfast is one of six promising new projects to receive a grant from Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Research Innovation Fund in 2019. Grants are intended to help combat the cycle of underfunding which has hampered desperately needed progress on diagnosis, treatment and survival for pancreatic cancer.