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Grandmother given 12 months to live makes emotional plea for funding of clinical cancer trial

Gaynor van der Walt was “enormously surprised” when she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in February this year and given only 12 months to live.

The 71-year-old grandmother of three had no related possible risk factors, like smoking, poor diet and lifestyle or family history of cancer.

She felt an “unbearable, “persistent” pain in her epigastric region, around her ribs and back and also lost about 10kg from a loss of appetite.

With the cancer being so difficult to detect, the Kensington Gardens resident saw a number of medical professionals in the year before her diagnosis.

Nine months on from her prognosis, Mrs van der Walt hopes to be selected for phase 1 clinical trials, run by the University of South Australia, for an experimental drug called Auceliciclib that targets certain enzymes and kills cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.

“If I could leave one legacy in my life it would be (to get) people who are able to donate towards this research and dig deep in their pockets. It would be wonderful,” she said.

Gaynor Van Der Walt Portrait
Camera IconGaynor van der Walt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 12 months to live. NCA NewsWire / Naomi Jellicoe Credit: News Corp Australia

“I’m aware it’s a stubborn tumour and it doesn’t respond to chemo(therapy) like it should and this looks like groundbreaking research.

“I would be very grateful to be part of the trial … but it’s about making people aware of the difficulty of treating pancreatic cancer and that more research needs to be done.”

The former nurse said all she wanted to do was to see her grandchildren grow up and watch them choose their path in life.

“I have to accept that now. I wouldn’t have the healthy mindset I have if I dwelled too much on everything that’s been taken from me. I have to live in the now,” she said.

“There have been times where I thought ‘why me when I’ve taken such good care of myself?’ but it’s just bad luck.

“It’s devastating for both my girls. We don’t have easy lives and I’ve been the centre and core of keeping all of us going, so the disappointment to me is letting everyone down.”

Gaynor Van Der Walt Portrait
Camera IconJohan van der Walt said there was an ‘uncertainty’ around their future and he would be ‘very keen’ for his wife to participate in the trial. NCA NewsWire / Naomi Jellicoe Credit: News Corp Australia

Her husband of 25 years, Johan, 78, said it was “awful” having to watch his wife in pain but called her “an absolute star”.

“If Gaynor is a suitable candidate and meets the criteria for the trial, I’d be very keen for her to participate,” Mr van der Walt said.

“When she got the diagnosis, she was incredibly sick in the beginning.

“It’s now nine months later (since the prognosis) and the fact she’s so well at the moment is a real gift, but it signifies we live in a bubble and it could burst at any time.

“There is uncertainty about our future … it’s an absolute game changer.”

Professor Shudong Wang
Camera IconUniSA head of drug discovery and development Professor Shudong Wang is one of the researchers who developed Auceliciclib. NCA NewsWire / Kelly Barnes Credit: News Corp Australia

About 90 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients die within the first five years of their diagnosis.

Just last year, 466,003 people around the world succumbed to the disease.

Auceliciclib, developed by UniSA head of drug discovery and development, Shudong Wang, was successfully trialled in animals and the researcher is hoping to recruit up to 10 pancreatic cancer patients for a human clinical trial.

The trial is subject to $350,000 being raised by the end of the year.

“Pancreatic cancer is extremely difficult to diagnose at an early stage as there are very few symptoms,” Professor Wang said.

“If it is caught early the malignant tumour can be surgically removed. However, once it spreads into other organs it is lethal, and chemotherapy and radiotherapy only buy patients a little extra time.”

The drug, taken as an oral tablet, has shown promising results in clinical trials to treat glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.

UniSA is launching a campaign to help fund this clinical trial and is accepting donations.

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