The personal tragedy driving MP to fight killer disease on all fronts

Eric Ollerenshaw, Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood
Eric Ollerenshaw, Conservative MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood

The loss of his partner spurred Eric Ollerenshaw to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group

The colour purple has a special significance for local MP Eric Ollerenshaw.

When Lancaster’s city museum and Fleetwood’s Marine Hall were festooned with purple lights last year it was a small but public and significant step on Eric’s road to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.

He has stepped into the spotlight as a high profile campaigner to improve outcomes for those diagnosed with the disease and lobby for more research into this devastating killer,

Eric, a Tory newcomer to parliament in 2010, was instrumental in setting up the All Party Pancreatic Cancer Group, which he chairs, and which has produced two reports with recommendations on how to begin to turn around the statistics which mean those diagnosed with this disease often have just weeks to live.

He notes: “8,700 are diagnosed each year of which 99 per cent will not survive the year. Every day 24 people are diagnosed in the UK.”

Eric speaks with the voice of experience and sometimes, he acknowledges, has to take time out to recover his emotions about what for him is a very emotive subject.

He lost his partner of nearly 36 years, Michael Donoghue, just six weeks after he was diagnosed with the disease five years ago.

It was a terrible time: “He was 61 - again it was a bit of stomach ache, so what do you do you got to Boots and get some Gaviscon.

“You look back - he was extremely tired and drawn for a year, but you put that down to being fed up with work as he was not in pain. The doctor gives a prescription and it’s backwards and forwards to the doctor and suddenly I can remember he’d gone yellow and his leg blown up and couldn’t move. We went to A and E, did all the tests ....six weeks from that diagnosis to death.”

“There are so many people in the same position I was. You simply make a vow to yourself - simply don’t want anybody else to be in that position... I can ask the questions.”

Eric a history teacher, with vast experience in three comprehensives at the time, gave up work when his partner was diagnosed and stepped into what he describes as a “parallel” universe.

He speaks eloquently and vehemently of the experience of walking alongside someone with cancer: ”It’s like entering a parallel universe, going to hospital for tests and backwards and forwards. It’s like a cancer universe. Having been in a parallel universe I said I wanted to do something about it.”

His partner was, he says, completely unlike him. Whereas Eric, from old Lancashire (Ashton-under-Lyne) went to grammar school in Hyde and studied for a history degree at the London School of Economics before teaching for 38 years, his partner worked in a shop and was “totally different, no politics, no education.”

Marriage he said, never was a thought for them, even though it has been debated and legalised since: “I think we were more traditional than that, it wasn’t an issue in that sense -we were two people together and we didn’t really worry.

“Yes, I did vote for it, provided the religious element was protected because I’m a Roman Catholic. I suppose I would have liked the opportunity to have the choice.”

Eric was faced with a dilemma - he had been selected to fight Lancaster and Fleetwood for the Conservatives ,having previously served as leader of the London Assembly Conservative group and contested Heywood and Middleton, and had started campaigning. “You go through that thought - is it all worth it and how do you carry on - we had had 35 years.

“With a partnership like that certain things you look after -you simply start all over again and change your life.”

He offers an example: “My partner dealt with all the finance and I just got on with things.”

But he grasped the challenge and has carried on campaigning, whilst adamant he is not a one issue MP. ”I recognise the privilege I’ve got and I think you want to use it to the best of your abilities.”

He is full of praise for all those involved in working for the main pancreatic cancer charities - Pancreatic Cancer UK and Pancreatic Action UK and Pancreatic Research UK. In the way that pink is now associated with breast cancer research purple has become the colour for their pancreatic campaigns.

He has praise too for a campaigning couple who lost their athletic sporty daughter in her mid twenties highlighting that although the disease is viewed as one which afflicts older men, it can strike younger people and women are as liable to get it as men.

He is confident there are signs of hope and a centre of excellence has been set up in Liverpool: “There’s some movement out there - but a long way to go.

“The biggest thing we are trying to see if there can be a national awareness campaign, like there was with prostate cancer because it’s not specific symptoms it’s very, very difficult.

“The big thing is research- you need a kind of test kit but that’s not here yet. There is so much more to do - there are so many pieces in the jigsaw not in place but I do feel we are getting the awareness”

“Remember I was a new MP in 2010 - actually you can make a difference. When it’s something like this it’s amazing.” Party lines disappear, he says, as MPs work together with a goal of gaining earlier diagnosis and improved treatment.

With Clinical Commissioning Group’s powers and budgets under scrutiny, issues over postcode lotteries and availability of treatment the need to ensure pancreatic is not a Cinderella research subject and the ongoing need to fight for recognition that even a two month survival rate extended by drugs is worth funding medicines for - and that pancreatic cancer sufferers merit this consideration - there is much still to be done.

As for Michael, he reflects quietly: “I hope he would be quite impressed - not just with me but all those different people.”