When Greg Barr's skin suddenly turned yellow in 2019, he wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Though he knew something was up, the then 62-year-old admitted he "really didn't feel that bad at all".
The cattle farmer, based in Nebo — 100 kilometres inland from Mackay in Queensland — thought he better take a trip to the GP to get checked. After an initial consult, his doctor sent his scans to a specialist surgeon at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, following a phone call.
Merely seconds after glancing at the scans, the surgeon told Mr Barr: "Be here at eight o'clock tomorrow morning".
Beginning of a four-year journey
Quickly, doctors identified a four centimetre tumour at the head of Mr Barr's pancreas. A father of two, grandfather of four, and companion of 30 years to his partner Debbie, Mr Barr was given just one year to live — and less than a three per cent chance of surviving the merciless disease for longer than five years.
A self-described optimist, eternally "a glass half-full kind of bloke" Mr Barr faced losing everything he knew and loved in just a matter of months, but he maintained, "I was never going to let the cancer win".
Although admitting he was in shock when he was initially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which, out of all forms of the devastating disease has one of the lowest rates of survival, Mr Barr says that he always maintained confidence in his ability to overcome it and strived to keep a sense of humour throughout the ordeal.
"I'd just had two total knee replacements, and I said to Debbie, one of the first things that I thought after the diagnosis was, 'I'll never get the chance to wear my knees out'," Mr Barr, now 66, joked.
"The surgeon said to me when when I was checking out of the hospital in Brisbane, he said to me, 'look, you've still only got a very low chance of survival out of this — you know only three per cent of people make it to five years'.
"And I said, 'well, right, how do I get into that three per cent then?', and he told me having a good attitude like that was a start."
Determined to defy the odds
Mr Barr first presented to his GP with jaundice on November 15, 2019. Soon after his diagnosis he was booked in for six months of chemotherapy, but due to the emergence of Covid-19 — then still a fresh term — his treatment was reduced to five months.
By April 30, 2020, coronavirus had firmly taken hold of Australia, and as more restrictions were swiftly implemented, it was decided Mr Barr would undergo a Whipple procedure — an operation to treat tumours in the pancreas, involving removing the head — before lockdowns and border closures made it impossible.
After a successful surgery, and a further four months of chemotherapy, Mr Barr developed a staph infection, and was hospitalised for three full weeks and placed on antibiotics.
"I was making plans around not living long," Mr Barr explained to Yahoo News Australia. "My partner and I had to, you know, have a couple of serious conversations about that. We've got a lovely 800 acre property, just outside of Nebo and it takes a bit of running. We spoke about whether Debbie would like to stay there if I died.
"I've got two boys, they're both close to 40, with grandkids and yeah, they were obviously worried. Both of my brothers were very worried about it all — it was a big shock to a family that you know, had basically been tragedy and early-death free."
While his family made no effort to hide their serious concerns, Mr Barr said he was determined to live.
"The first time I ever lost sleep over the whole thing, and I mean, I don't think I'm a particularly brave person, but I'm a very, very confident person — a glass half-full sort of bloke. But when I got the first scan after all the chemo and everything else, that first scan and blood test, I had to wait two days for the results.
"Those two nights were the first time I had ever lost sleep over the whole thing."
Reaching the finish line many will never see
After finishing his antibiotics for the staph infection, and after an exhausting two-day wait, that felt like more like two weeks, the news finally arrived.
Mr Barr received a clear scan — the cancer was gone.
He'd no longer require further rounds of chemotherapy, he'd "beaten the death sentence". With thousands killed every year from pancreatic cancer, Mr Barr knows he's one of the lucky ones.
Tragic new statistics released this week by the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare estimate the disease is expected to claim more lives than breast cancer in 2023, a gut-wrenching 10 Australians per day. A figure that has never been higher.
Pancreatic cancer has for the first time risen in incidence to be acknowledged as a "common" cancer, with a general survival rate of just 12.5 per cent, a number that drops sharply to an astonishing 6.8 per cent in regional Australia. In the last 20 years, the rate of pancreatic cancer has doubled nationally.
"Five to 10 years ago, if you were told you had pancreatic cancer, it was a death sentence," Mr Barr said.
"And most people that found out that I had pancreas cancer, they admitted to me later, 'you know, we didn't think you were gonna last a year'.
"Even when my doctor told me I only had a year to live, I just looked him right in the eye and said, 'Get used to looking at my face because I'm going to be around a lot longer than one year'".
As of May 1, 2023, Mr Barr was declared officially cancer-free.
"At that two-year mark, I reminded him of that conversation and he had a bit of a chuckle and said 'yes I remember'. At three years, he said 'I think you might have this beaten'," Mr Barr said.
"Now, my attitude for life has changed. I used to say my favourite saying was always, 'never put off till tomorrow, what you can put off till the next day'", the farmer joked.
"You know, I was always pretty casual about getting jobs done and that sort of thing. Well, that's changed now. It's gotta be done. I want it done."
Pancreatic cancer is predicted to claim more lives than breast cancer in Australia this year, with an estimated 3,669 people expected to lose their lives. It has the lowest survival rate of all common cancers, with 4500 people expected to be diagnosed in 2023.
A heartbreaking 80 per cent of these patients will die within 12 months.
“The deadly outcomes in pancreatic cancer result in limited visibility and reduced public awareness, and consequently, many people do not realise that pancreatic cancer is now a common cancer,” Michelle Stewart, CEO of PanKind, The Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation said.
“In contrast, more high-profile cancers experience survival rates of over 90 per cent while for pancreatic cancer the survival rate is only 12.5%, which drops alarmingly to just 6.8 per cent for people who live in regional Australia.
To learn more about the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer, or need information or support, visit: www.pankind.org.au
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