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“It can't be very important because it comes and goes”—patients' accounts of intermittent symptoms preceding a pancreatic cancer diagnosis: a qualitative study
  1. Julie Evans1,
  2. Alison Chapple1,
  3. Helen Salisbury2,
  4. Pippa Corrie3,
  5. Sue Ziebland2
  1. 1Health Experiences Research Group, Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. 2Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  3. 3Oncology Centre (Box 193), Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Julie Evans; julie.evans{at}


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.

  • Qualitative Research
  • Primary Care
  • Social Medicine

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 3.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See:

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