Heidi Dance had always prided herself on being fit and healthy, so when she began to get diarrhoea, frequent urinary tract infections and shooting pains in her abdomen, she headed straight to her GP.
‘I’m the sort of person who never normally goes to the doctor, and I’d always been in good health,’ she says.
‘But something didn’t feel right. I had no appetite – I kept saying, “I will finish my dinner, I’m just a bit slow.”’
Doctors were stumped as to the cause of Heidi’s symptoms.
She was referred to endless specialists for blood tests, ultra sounds, even a CT scan.
But no one could pin-point what was causing it, and Heidi was sent to see a succession of gynaecologists, urologists and endocrinologists.
‘I was in agony, with constant lower back pain that meant I didn’t sleep for over a year because I didn’t like to lie down,’ says Heidi.
‘I just wasn’t hungry and the diarrhoea was relentless, but still doctors couldn’t work out what it was.
'I remember my daughter saying, “Well, at least we know that it’s nothing really bad because you’ve had every test under the sun.”
'One doctor even put it down to anxiety, and another said it might just be one of those things we never quite get to the bottom of.’
In the family
Heidi had to cut down her hours at the lounge bar where she worked as a supervisor and waitress.
After a year of suffering with the mysterious symptoms, she had inadvertently lost 21/2 stone.
Meanwhile, Heidi’s older brother Rene, then 51, had also begun to feel unwell.
A burly rugby player and a builder by profession, Rene found himself feeling exhausted, losing weight and having pains in his stomach.
‘I’d been feeling unwell for about six months when Rene became ill,’ says Heidi.
'But they seemed to be quite different symptoms, so we didn’t think it could be the same thing.'
Heidi and Rene came from a family of five, and had always been close.
Heidi is mum to two kids, Jody, 28, and Cally, 23, while Rene has five of his own, all in their 20s.
Heidi also has two grandkids, and Rene became a grandfather for the first time in December last year.
The family are no stranger to illness.
They lost their mum 10 years ago after a stroke, while their father died eight years ago, aged 74, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
‘Dad was diagnosed around Christmas in 2011 and became very ill, very quickly,’ says Heidi.
‘It was terrible to watch, and he was dead by April.
'Doctors assured us pancreatic cancer wasn’t hereditary, so we never thought we were at risk from the disease.’
Tragically, history repeated itself when Rene was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2018, just six months after he began to feel unwell.
‘We were all devastated, because we saw how quickly it had taken our dad,’ she says.
‘It was heart-breaking to learn the cancer had spread to Rene’s liver too. But even then, I was sure my own bad health was something entirely separate, because I’d had every test going.’
But a few weeks after Rene’s diagnosis, Heidi was taken to hospital with shooting pains in her abdomen.
Heidi stayed on a ward while they investigated her symptoms, but even then she remained upbeat, telling her daughter not to worry about coming to see her until they found out more.
‘I was alone when a consultant arrived, clutching the results of my latest CT scan,’ says Heidi.
‘When he told me I had pancreatic cancer too, I just couldn’t take it in.
'I started crying and asked them to wait until my brother arrived, because I was in so much shock.
'I’d been tested for just about every cancer there is, except for the one I have – even though my own father died of it.’
The Dance family reeled in shock at the news that both Heidi and Rene had cancer.
All family members are now undergoing tests.
‘I’m very angry – I spent over a year trying to convince people I was ill,’ says Heidi.
‘You just believe the doctors when they fob you off with a painkiller and send you home.
'I kept pushing for a diagnosis and I think I should have been given one sooner, especially when pancreatic cancer is in the family – it was just overlooked because I’m still quite young.’
Heidi’s cancer is Stage 3, and thankfully hasn’t spread.
But the cancer is inoperable, and although she’s having chemo, doctors say she may only live for 1-2 years.
Rene’s health went downhill rapidly after his diagnosis.
Once a big man who’d spent a lifetime playing rugby, he shrank before his family’s eyes as the weight dropped off him.
Tragically, Rene recently passed away.
‘It was an enormous shock to lose Rene – he was always so full of life,’ says Heidi.
‘We’re expecting between 200-500 people at his funeral – I’m glad Mum didn’t live to see this…’
The day before Rene’s funeral, Heidi will be undergoing her third round of chemo, but is determined to be there.
‘I have to keep myself well, I have to be there for my family,’ she says.
‘The day after the funeral we are holding a fundraiser at Rene’s rugby club to raise money for Pancreatic Cancer UK.
'We’ve been planning it for a while, but it feels very poignant that it’s happening now.
'It will be very emotional to see so much love for Rene.’
To date, the Dance family have raised more than £9,000.
Heidi is staying positive.
Although she can no longer go to work as chemo takes its toll, she was very touched to learn that her former colleagues are currently fund-raising to send her family on a dream trip to Disneyland.
‘I’m planning on being around for as long as I can,’ she says.
‘I have to stay positive and focus on trying to keep going for my family.’ ■
For more info go to PancreaticCancerAction.org
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