Co Tyrone farmer William Sproule defies all the odds to survive diagnosis of deadly pancreatic cancer past 10 years

​A 79-year-old Co Tyrone farmer is among only one per cent of people to survive a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer past 10 years.
Strabane farmer William Sproule was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013Strabane farmer William Sproule was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013
Strabane farmer William Sproule was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013

Strabane man William Sproule, who survived the devastating diagnosis, works hard every day in the fields of the Sperrin Mountains, rearing beef and dairy cattle, and neither drinks nor smokes.

Surgeon, Mr Tom Diamond believed that because of these reasons and the fact that William was a generally fit and strong man, he was a good candidate for the lifesaving Whipple procedure – an operation to treat tumours and other conditions in the pancreas, small intestine, and bile ducts.

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William, who has been raising cattle since he was eight, with a farming background going back seven generations, uses a sileage and slurry analogy to describe his first symptom of the ‘silent killer’ pancreatic cancer.

Strabane farmer William Sproule with his wife PearlStrabane farmer William Sproule with his wife Pearl
Strabane farmer William Sproule with his wife Pearl

He said: “It was the middle of September in 2013, I first noticed my urine was dark. It was a darkish brown like the liquid you would see seeping out of sileage. I had no other pains or aches, so I ignored it for a while maybe for a fortnight or three weeks, but it was getting worse, so I went to my GP at the Family Practice, Strabane.”

William was seen by Dr Carey who thought William’s bile duct was blocked. By that stage he had developed jaundice, another tell-tale sign of pancreatic cancer and was fast-tracked for an appointment at hospital in Omagh just four days later.

At that stage, neither William nor his wife Pearl, 74, had any idea he had the devastating illness. They had never heard of this type of cancer before or knew of anyone who had it.

“We were just green, naieve about it,” Pearl said.

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Following an MRI and CT scan, William was immediately referred to see a consultant at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry where it was decided to insert a stent to clear the jaundice.

William said: “I was kept in overnight. My blood pressure started coming down and by the Friday morning, the yellowness and urine all started improving. I thought I was cured but Dr Ferguson asked me to attend his outpatients’ surgery the following Tuesday and asked me to bring my wife. I was just told I was going for an operation in Belfast. At that stage, I knew I had cancer but not what type.”

“I was seen on November 4 by Mr Tom Diamond who told me I would be operated on two weeks later at the Mater Hospital on November. He gave me a leaflet. I was shocked to read it, but Mr Diamond felt I was a good candidate for the Whipple’s procedure because I was otherwise fit and healthy.”

Pearl said: “We didn’t know what to feel or what was ahead of us. William didn’t want to tell anybody about it. Following the stent, he had no pain or ache, absolutely nothing and looked the picture of health. He almost didn’t go but was persuaded to by our minister, Reverend Mark Lennox from Christ Church, Strabane.”

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On the day of the operation, William and Pearl kept the news from their three grown children, Heather Sproule-Foy, Elaine McKenna and Billy Sproule, that their father would be operated on for an hour before it could be determined whether the surgery would be successful.

Pearl said: “He went to theatre around 1pm and came round after 6pm in intensive care. I remember thinking to myself, the longer this is going on the better. Mr Diamond said the surgery had gone well and to go to Intensive Care. William lifted his mask and asked how it had gone. We gave him the thumbs up.”

She added: “William was very weak after surgery but a very determined man to get better. He’s not a man to lie down. He got up and pushed himself. He was due to be in hospital for a fortnight but got out in 10 days. He’s not a man for pity.”

Six months of chemotherapy at home followed before William was back out farming in March and April 2014. Since then, he has survived prostate cancer in 2018, 39 sessions of radiotherapy, a mini-stroke and a broken wrist but is back and fighting fit once again.

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William said: “If I had one message to give to the public and to GPs now that I am more aware of and have survived pancreatic cancer is to know the symptoms and don’t delay like I did in going to get treatment. I know how lucky I am to be alive and that’s down to being diagnosed and treated on time. I’d like to thank everyone involved in my care.”

William is sharing his story as part of local pancreatic cancer charity NIPANC’s 2023 #TimeMatters campaign which, as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month #PCAM, aims to raise awareness about the symptoms of the disease and the life-saving urgency around early diagnosis and treatment.

A recent audit carried out by NIPANC in partnership with the NI Cancer Registry at QUB in partnership with HPB clinical staff in the Belfast Trust revealed 280 people in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with the disease each year in Northern Ireland and the numbers are increasing

Pancreatic Cancer Surgeon, Mr Tom Diamond, now retired and president of NIPANC said: “William’s story illustrates the importance of seeking medical advice even for very early subtle symptoms such as change in his urine. Particularly important symptoms in relation to early detection of pancreatic cancer are a change in urine colour, often described as tea-coloured, difficult to flush lighter coloured bowel movements and yellowing in the eyes and skin which is jaundice.”

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Symptoms include, jaundice, unexplained weight loss, diabetes, pale, difficult to flush smelly stools, dark urine, indigestion that doesn’t go away with prescribed medication, upper mid-back pain radiating around to the stomach, abdominal pain, pain on eating, changes to taste, fatigue, and depression.

More on the symptoms of pancreatic cancer here