Retired East Yorkshire civil servant with terminal cancer diagnosis on how her approach aims to make people more comfortable with death

In March Vanessa Walker was given just weeks to live. Here she talks to Lucy Oates about her end of life journey and her mission to get people talking about death

Talking to Vanessa Walker about her terminal cancer diagnosis, it is clear from the start that no question is off limits.

This matter-of-fact approach is typical of the 66-year-old East Riding councillor who has made it her mission to encourage people to talk more openly about the end of life, as well as raising awareness of pancreatic cancer.

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Vanessa Walker with her daughters

In the weeks leading up to Vanessa’s diagnosis, which she received two days after her 66th birthday in March, she’d been suffering from an aching shoulder. Having consulted her GP, as well as a physiotherapist, an osteopath and a chiropractor, she’d been told the pain was caused by ‘wear and tear’ and was taking strong anti-inflammatory tablets to ease it.

Vanessa, who lives in North Ferriby, recalls: “I was tired too, but we were all home working at the time due to the pandemic, so I thought that was maybe why I wasn’t so energised.

“I’d lost weight and my appetite, and I actually wondered if I might have type 2 diabetes, even though I didn’t really fit the criteria for that because I exercise, don’t smoke and only enjoy a glass of wine in moderation. I’ve since learnt that a small percentage of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can present with similar blood test results and symptoms to those with diabetes.”

It was only when the anti-inflammatory tablets caused gastritis that Vanessa returned to her GP and was sent for a blood test, which was swiftly followed by an ultrasound scan. The sonographer gave Vanessa the first clear indication that her condition was far more serious than first thought after spotting tumours in her liver.

By the time Vanessa, a former nurse who went on to work as a civil servant, was diagnosed, she learned that the primary cancer in her pancreas had already spread, causing secondary cancer in her liver.

“More than 50 per cent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are already at the fourth - and worst - stage, and that was the case with me. I think I’d had it for more than two years. By the time I was told, I wasn’t that surprised about the nature of it or the stage it was at, I had a strong intuition.”

Vanessa was told that she may only have a few weeks to live and, because the cancer had spread to her bones, she suffered a fractured hip in May, requiring a half hip replacement. Seven months on, Vanessa has responded well to chemotherapy and is still living what she describes as her ‘end of life adventure’.

“I feel blessed that I’ve had more time. I’m embracing and living it, and enjoying the people around me. I was in quite a dilemma over whether to even accept chemotherapy because I didn’t want to spend my last few weeks suffering with the side effects. My family didn’t pressure me but I knew they wanted me to try it, so I gave it a go. It has been a good thing as I don’t have bad side effects and the steroids I’m on give me energy. It has given me a few months to spend time with my partner, my two children and my four grandchildren. Back in May, when I broke my hip, I never imagined I’d be doing the things that I’ve done this last few months. I’ve been to Ireland and the Isle of Man, where I’m a non-executive director for Health and Social Care, and I’ve seen my family over there. We’ve also had a short break in Corfu.”

Vanessa is still attending meetings of East Riding of Yorkshire Council and fulfilling her duties. “I’ve asked them to let me continue until I feel I’m no longer able to do it; I still manage to have my say and have a voice.”

She also appeared in a recent ITV documentary called ‘Britain’s Hidden Killer’, which investigated whether enough is being done to get patients with pancreatic cancer an early diagnosis. The episode, which aired on 15 October, is still available to view online. One of Vanessa’s concerns is the lack of research investment into pancreatic cancer.

“Treatment has barely moved on in a decade. I also think there needs to be more awareness and that GPs need to be more curious. I’m not someone who goes to the doctor’s very often, but I’d been three or four times with pain in my shoulder.”

Although Vanessa insists that she doesn’t feel ‘angry, in denial or depressed’, she admits: “I do feel sad sometimes. I had envisaged living another two or even three decades as my Dad lived to be almost 100. I thought I’d be a slightly dotty old woman, driving my children nuts! I’d envisaged being quite busy over the next couple of decades and that’s not going to happen.”

She is determined to encourage conversations about the end of life, explaining: “When I got my diagnosis, I made it my mission to make sure that people knew and that I could tell them myself so I could encourage them not to feel awkward. I want people to be able to ask me questions and to still want to talk to me about their own problems. I like to be a good listener.

“I’m just trying to keep things normal; I don’t want people to come and see me just to be charitable.”

Typifying Vanessa’s response to her illness, she even commented to her partner, Andy: “I hope that this dying business doesn’t make me too self-centred as I’ll miss out on other people’s gossip.”

She is continuing to plan short trips and get-togethers with family and friends, albeit no further than eight weeks in advance. “No-one can and would commit themselves to telling me how much time I have, and the medics are used to seeing a partial response to chemotherapy. I’m holding my own and doing what I can with it.

“It does give you greater awareness of the small things in life being very rich and lovely; the things you’d take for granted.”

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, pancreatic cancer is the tenth most common cancer and the fifth most deadly, accounting for around 9,500 deaths in the UK each year.

It has been been dubbed a ‘hidden killer’ because it’s so difficult to diagnose and survival rates are far lower than those for other types of cancer.

Disturbingly, the number of people who survive for five years or more after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer has not changed significantly since the 1970s.

Half of those diagnosed die within three months and just seven per cent survive beyond five years.

For more information visit www.pcrf.org.uk