A pancreatic cancer survivor battling the disease for a second time has shared the early signs people of all ages should know.
Charles Czajkowski, 63, a business development manager for a geotechnical company from Surbiton, Kingston, has “declared war on pancreatic cancer” after a five-year ordeal with two rounds of the disease – which also caused the death of his mother Romaulda, aged 78, in 1999.
Mr Czajkowski, who is hoping for treatment he received through his wife’s private healthcare package will save his life, is set to speak to MPs on in the Commons on Wednesday to urge the government to provide greater funding for the condition.
He will speak alongside 20 others who either have the disease or who have lost someone to it as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
After his health began to decline in 2017, Charles faced a series of delays to his diagnosis and treatment through the NHS until he accessed Bupa healthcare through the workplace of his wife of 16 years, Jackie Czajkowski.
After initial treatment success, in May 2022 Charles’ cancer returned and private oncologists are now attempting to use a series of drugs, some of which are unavailable on the NHS, to save his life.
Now working to fight the illness and help patients to spot it early, Charles is a pancreatic patient representative and on the scientific advisory board for Pancreatic Cancer UK.
He is also a pancreatic patient representative for NHS Cancer UK, as part of the government’s 10-year plan to help optimize the early diagnostics and early treatment plan for anybody with pancreatic cancer, liver cancer or biliary cancer.
“It’s given me control,” Charles said.
“Pancreatic cancer has declared war on me… so to get back at it, I’ve declared war on pancreatic cancer by being able to help educate and save other people’s lives.
“It’s an awareness battle because pancreatic cancer UK hasn’t had much air time and hasn’t had the investment.”
Charles’s order as a cancer patient began in 2017 when he was diagnosed with type two diabetes.
Halfway through that year, he had a pancreatic attack – also known as acute pancreatitis – which, according to the NHS, is a severe pain which starts suddenly in the center of a patient’s abdomen and can also be accompanied by vomiting and a high temperature.
For the rest of the year, Charles was under observation amid repeated pancreatic attacks and he was rapidly losing weight, dropping from 85kg to around 75kg at 6ft tall.
“Another sign that things weren’t going right was that my pancreas wasn’t producing the enzymes and so I started getting what they call pancreatic diarrhea, which is a true sign if your food’s not being digested properly,” Charles added.
As a result, his GP prescribed Charles Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (Pert) which made Charles’ weight stable as he was now able to absorb nutrients.
From there, Charles was sent to a series of different hospitals for scans and assessments.
Eventually, at the beginning of March 2019, further tests revealed a 10-millimeter tumor on the head of Charles’ pancreas.
On March 25 2019, Charles met with the head of the surgical team at Hammersmith Hospital alongside his wife and a Macmillan nurse.
“He said to me, Charles, you don’t have chronic pancreatitis, you have pancreatic cancer,” Charles said.
“They had a Macmillan nurse there because obviously people generally go into shock.
“But I suddenly just said, ‘Okay, so what are we going to do about this Professor?’”
The NHS doctor explained to Charles that a whipple procedure to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct, would take place two months later.
After researching the survival rate for pancreatic cancer, Charles feared this wait time was a risk so decided to go private for the rest of his treatment through his wife’s Bupa medical cover.
Just one week later, his operation was carried out at the London Clinic Hospital using a Da Vinci surgical robot.
“I was basically told to say goodbye to my wife because the operation comes with a lot of risk,” Charles said.
“So it was very hard when we both went into the pre-med room because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up from this major operation.
“But luckily for me, just when I was saying goodbye, they had just injected me with the pre-med and next thing I was out.”
On April 2, the private operation involved making five holes in Charles’ abdomen, meaning there is less of a rise of infection, and Charles was out of hospital 13 days later.
A month after that Charles began six months of fortnightly chemotherapy sessions, which led to his weight dropping to just around 67kg – before his diagnosis he was around 85kg. “I looked skeletal,” Charles said.
“But I managed to stick it out. With a lot of hard work, you have to fight it, it’s a battle.”
After the chemo, a scan found no instances of new tumors until – at the start of 2020 – another scan revealed dots on his right lung and a lymph node swelling close to his aorta.
By August 2020, the dots had grown into 10-millimetre tumors, so Charles had a lung ablation – a surgical treatment where a probe is inserted which will destroy the tumor with extreme heat or cold.
The lymph node treatment was more complicated than standard radiotherapy would have also touched Charles’ aorta and there was a risk of it rupturing.
Instead, at the beginning of October, Charles was treated at Genesis Care in Oxford with a new technology, MRIdian Linac – a directed radiotherapy using an MRI system so collateral damage is minimized.
After five one-hour sessions over two weeks, the lymph node tumor was gone and there was no damage to Charles’ aorta, meaning Charles’ life could finally return to normal besides the three-month check-up scans.
At this point Charles decided to dedicate his life, besides his work and family, to campaigning for pancreatic cancer, joining Pancreatic Cancer UK and becoming a pancreatic cancer patient representative for Genesis Care.
However, in May 2022, a CT scan revealed his pancreatic cancer had returned in a secondary form.
At this stage, there is no cure for his condition, but Charles’ oncologist put him back on chemotherapy with two new drugs, one of which is not available on the NHS.
After three months of treatment the tumors continued to grow and, in September, Charles began another round of chemotherapy fortnightly.
He will find out if this treatment has shrunk his tumor later this month.
On his visit to parliament, he and others will speak individually to between 60 and 80 MPs who have signed up to the Pancreatic Cancer UK initiative as part of their No Time To Wait campaign.
“Our role is to tell our story, basically, to educate them so they can understand we need more investments,” he said.
Reflecting on his experience with cancer, Charles said: “Fighting cancer is more than fighting it physically, it’s mental.
“You have to concentrate on all the positivity, you can get out of it.
“I’ve traveled all over the world in my job and have been to places that people would have dreamed of going, and I took that for granted.
“But going through cancer puts your whole life into perspective.”
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