When Nyree Smith was diagnosed with cancer, she had many things to worry about, but money wasn’t one of them, thanks to a last-minute decision.
Nyree Smith is a woman on a mission. She is doing everything she can to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, so that other Kiwis who are diagnosed with this notoriously fast-moving and lethal disease have at least a fighting chance of surviving.
“Early detection is absolutely crucial,” she says. “The problem is that there is no screening test or early detection method for pancreatic cancer, and often no signs in its early stage. I was walking 5km three times a week when I was diagnosed. I felt fine. But the lack of symptoms means just 10% of patients are diagnosed early enough to undergo surgery, which is the only cure.”
The Auckland mum of two was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017 and says she was incredibly lucky that her doctor was so thorough, which meant her cancer was detected early.
“I had only just switched over to her as my GP, so we decided to do all my bloods and a physical just to check everything, start with a clean slate,” says Nyree.
It was in those blood tests that Nyree’s doctor picked up an irregularity in her liver function. Nyree put it down to falling down some stairs as a teenager, which had caused lesions on her liver. But her doctor asked her to get an ultrasound. When that was inconclusive, she insisted on an MRI.
“My liver specialist rang me, saying, ‘You’ve got one pushy GP.’ She really hassled him,” says Nyree, with a chuckle.
It was a good thing she did. The MRI revealed a growth on Nyree’s pancreas and a subsequent biopsy confirmed that she had pancreatic cancer.
Nyree says aside from her doctor, the other thing in her favour was that she had medical insurance with AIA New Zealand.
“This is a fast-moving cancer. You can’t afford delays. That’s not something I knew at the time, but when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t have to worry, ‘Can I afford to see a specialist? Can I afford to get a biospy done privately? Can I afford to have all the scans and the tests that are required? Can I afford to go to Mercy and have it removed?’
“Having insurance saved my life. I never had to even think along those lines. AIA has never quibbled about anything or made anything difficult. I couldn’t believe how my case manager would just call me for no other reason than to see how I was doing throughout my treatment – they have been incredible.”
After two lengthy surgeries – one through the private system and the other through the public system – and a course of chemotherapy, Nyree was classified NED (no evidence of disease) in 2018. So she and her husband Wayne headed to Canada to be at the birth of their second grandchild.
“The funny thing is my insurance broker for more than 20 years and I had discussed my income protection insurance just the year before,” says Nyree. “I wanted to give it up because my husband was working and had insurance, but she persuaded me to keep it. And then all of this happened. If I hadn’t had that policy, I would have had to keep working. As it was, I was able to have time off to look after myself, and we even got to travel to Canada and see baby Noah. It was simply wonderful.”
Unfortunately, Nyree’s cancer returned in 2019, and she started on chemotherapy again the week after she got back from Canada. “I did chemotherapy from November 2019 on and off right until the end of February this year.”
Nyree is looking after her health as best she can and has also thrown herself into organising the PanCan Gala, an elegant event sponsored by AIA, to raise awareness and funds for research.
“My oncologist doesn’t understand why my cancer is so slow-growing at the moment. We all know it’s not going to stay like that, but at the moment, it is, and I believe there must be a reason why. So I’m on a mission to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer around the country and raise money for further research. If we can save one life, it will be worth it,” she says.
I’m on a mission to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer… If we can save one life, it will be worth it
Nyree also has her fingers crossed that her daughter Leah will be able to bring her third grandchild, named Peyton Chesney Nyree after her, over from Canada.
“I’m so grateful I’ve been able to have this extra time. I’d love to hold Peyton and give her a cuddle. We’re trying to get them out to New Zealand so the kids can spend time with me while I’m well enough to make good memories.”
For more information, visit www.aia.co.nz