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Objective: This article explores how people with pancreatic cancer interpreted prediagnostic signs and symptoms, and what triggered them to seek medical help for symptoms that occurred intermittently. Design: Thematic analysis of prediagnostic symptom descriptions drawn from a qualitative interview study of people with experiences of pancreatic cancer. Participants: 40 people affected by pancreatic cancer (32 patients and 8 relatives of people who had died). Age at interview ranged from 35 to 84 years; 55% were men; and 57.5% of patients had been offered potentially curative surgery. Setting: Respondents interviewed at home were recruited from different parts of the UK during 2009/ 2010. Results: Analysis of the interviews suggested that intermittent symptoms were not uncommon in the months, or even years, before diagnosis but that the fact that the symptom did not persist was often taken by the patient as a reassuring indicator that it could not be 'very important'. Such symptoms were rarely acted upon until a pattern became apparent, the frequency of symptom episodes increased, there was a change in the nature of the intermittent symptoms or additional symptom(s) appeared. These findings build on social science theories of consultation behaviour. Conclusions: Our study - the largest reported collection of qualitative interviews with people with pancreatic cancer - reports for the first time that symptoms of an intermittent nature may precede a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Patients (and potentially their doctors as well) may be falsely reassured by symptoms that come and go. Pancreatic cancer might be identified at a stage where curative treatment is more likely if there were greater awareness that intermittent gastrointestinal symptoms can have a serious cause, and if patients with intermittent pancreatitis-like symptoms were investigated more readily.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ Open

Publication Date