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Terminally ill father misdiagnosed as coeliac reveals pancreatic cancer symptoms everyone should watch for

·6 min read
Mark (centre) first started experiencing symptoms in January this year (Collect/PA Real Life)
Mark (centre) first started experiencing symptoms in January this year (Collect/PA Real Life)

A seemingly healthy father-of-three recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer has warned of the everyday symptoms everyone should know about.

Business development manager Mark Ryan, 37, first felt something was wrong when he started to experience abdominal and back pain in January.

He said: “Earlier this year, I started to suffer with severe abdominal and back pain.

“It wasn’t easing so I went to my GP who initially thought I could be coeliac and carried out various tests.

“I cut gluten completely from my diet, but the pain persisted, so I was then referred to a gastroenterologist who did further tests.”

As a result, Mark was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2022.

He said: “It was a shock, just completely out of the blue. I knew something had to be wrong but I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be cancer.

“The average age of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is 70. I’m a lot younger, generally fit and healthy, with no previous health issues or a history of cancer in the family, so it really did come as a complete shock.”

The devoted father is in awe of his children, Reece, nine, and Emilie, seven, who have raised tens of thousands for cancer research by running 26 miles during their school holidays.

The determined duo have been running daily since their school broke up in July – raising £50K already, with the rest of the month still to go, for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Since his diagnosis in March this year Mark, who lives in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, with solicitor wife Lara, 40, and their children, Reece, Emilie, and Rory, three, said: “I’m very proud of them.”

He added: “The kids have been incredible at dealing with the news of my diagnosis.

“Lara and I have been very honest with them and the older two wanted to take on this challenge as their way of helping out.”

My wife and I decided to take a very open and honest approach with the kids when it came to talking about my illness.

Mark Ryan

Things became even tougher for Mark when he was told how far his cancer had progressed.

He said: “It was even worse to hear that it was stage four cancer.

“Unfortunately, with this type of cancer, the symptoms don’t tend to manifest until it’s quite far advanced, which was the case with me.”

He added: “For me, this cancer is terminal and doctors advised that I would need to commence chemotherapy immediately in order to try and get the situation under control.”

Starting treatment in March, Mark is now on his 10th cycle of chemotherapy.

He said: “I’m still in the initial stages of treatment. They will check after my 12th cycle to see how much effect the chemo has had on controlling the cancer. Then we can reassess and decide what the next steps will be.”

He added: “At diagnosis, doctors said the cancer was inoperable, but that may be an option down the line if it has shrunk.

“It’s a very aggressive form of cancer that is very complicated to treat and deal with, but I seem to have responded extremely well to the chemotherapy so far and all indications point towards my review being positive.”

In the meantime, Mark’s children Reece and Emilie have been eager to help, so decided to fundraise for the charity at the hospital that treats their dad.

He said: “My wife and I decided to take a very open and honest approach with the kids when it came to talking about my illness.

“We didn’t want them worrying or guessing about what was going on, so we made sure that they have a basic understanding of cancer.

“They know that the medicine makes me poorly in the short term, but that it is helping me to get better and if they have any questions they can, and often do, ask my wife and I.”

I am keen to heighten the awareness of pancreatic cancer as well as the great work at The Royal Marsden.

Mark Ryan

He added: “It seems to have been really effective in helping them to come to terms with it and they have just been incredible.”

And, after spotting a Race for Life advert on TV, the brother and sister had a bright idea.

Mark said: “They had seen that people were taking part in a run to raise money for cancer and they desperately wanted to do something similar to help.”

He added: “Full credit goes to them for the idea and for having such a positive reaction to a negative situation.

“Lara and I talked about it a lot with them and we came up with a plan that would be ambitious but realistic and achievable for them.”

Starting their summer holidays in July, Reece and Emilie embarked on a daily run which would total the distance of a marathon by the end of their school break.

Mark said: “They’re about halfway through their challenge and they’ve done incredibly well so far.

“There have been some days where it has been tough for them to stay motivated, especially with the recent heatwave, but they go out with my wife, who has been their running partner and motivational coach, in the mornings when it is cooler and usually do about half a mile a day.”

Mark has been blown away by the donations that have flooded in.

He said: “We initially set the target at £10k, but we are nearly at £50k with almost a month to go.

“I don’t think any of us expected to raise such an incredible sum of money. The support from friends, the local community and our wider network has just been wonderful.

“I’m so proud of the children and their determination to do this. I think they’re doing fantastically well so far.”

As a family, we are excited about the opportunity to give something back and help to improve the lives of future patients.

Mark Ryan

Like his children, Mark is very keen to support The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

He said: “I am keen to heighten the awareness of pancreatic cancer as well as the great work at The Royal Marsden.

“I have been so impressed with the level of care and treatment I’ve received so far. I honestly can’t fault it.”

He added: “I know there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes there and, as a family, we are excited about the opportunity to give something back and help to improve the lives of future patients.”

Antonia Dalmahoy, Managing Director of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, praised the family for their efforts.

She said: “We are so grateful to Mark, Reece and Emilie for supporting The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity with their challenge.”

She added: “It is a testament to their resilience and generosity as a family that they have chosen to dedicate their summer to this feat, focusing their energy on helping others who are facing cancer.

“Reece and Emilie are making fantastic progress and we are cheering them on every step of the way. Money raised for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity helps to fund state-of-the-art equipment, ground-breaking research and the very best patient environments.

“This incredible fundraiser will make a real difference not only to cancer patients at The Royal Marsden, but across the UK and the world.”

To donate to Reece and Emilie’s fundraiser, visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Mark-Ryan85