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Man deemed in perfect health weeks before Stage 4 cancer diagnosis

Joel Urnom, seen in this October 2012 photo with his wife Brandi Parson and daughter Viva, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in early 2014. HANDOUT/Brandi Parson

A provocative ad campaign launched in the U.K. has drawn attention to a disease which — despite being one of the deadliest forms of cancer and afflicting high-profile figures like Apple visionary Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze — often falls under the radar.

The ads feature three people with pancreatic cancer expressing a wish they had other forms of cancer with better survival rates. One of the patients, 24-year-old Kerry Harvey, died on Saturday.

Known as the silent killer, pancreatic cancer usually spreads in the body before it’s detected. By the time most people are diagnosed, it’s too late for surgery — their best chance of overcoming the disease.

Only six per cent survive five years after their diagnosis, according to Pancreatic Cancer Canada. Seventy-five per cent die within one year of finding out they have the disease.

For Toronto’s Joel Urnom, a husband and new father, the campaign has resonance.

Less than three months before his diagnosis with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Urnom, then 40, did a barrage of tests for a life insurance application, which found he was in apparently perfect health.

He attributed recent weight loss to his new vegetarian diet and daily walks with his baby daughter Viva. He likewise dismissed pain he’d been having.

“I was one of those guys who never want to go see the doctor,” said Urnom, who used to work out three days a week and play sports.

On Dec. 30, 2013, after his wife Brandi Parson heard him moaning in his sleep because of stomach cramps and urged him to see a doctor, Urnom finally went to a walk-in clinic.

Two weeks and a biopsy later, it was confirmed Urnom had advanced pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

“At first it was a big shock. It was a big weight on my shoulders,” Urnom said.

“I totally didn’t expect that at this age anyway. I was literally numb to the point that I couldn’t even hear what the doctor was saying after he dropped the bomb.”

Urnom soon learned early symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be subtle to non-existent, and it’s only when the tumour is big enough to press on nearby intestines, nerves and bile ducts that it affects appetite or causes pain, itching and jaundice. He also found out his mother’s history of breast and ovarian cancer increased his risk.

He and Parson have been doing everything they can to beat the disease.

Besides an aggressive chemotherapy regimen which has flattened his immune system and saps him of his energy, Urnom is trying acupuncture and seeing a naturopathic doctor, a holistic practitioner — even an energy healer.

The couple is optimistic the medical community will hear Urnom’s story and involve him in its research. As Parson pointed out, he’s young and strong enough to withstand clinical trials.

“You’ve got to have hope, right?” she said.

“I strongly believe that the more people who send positive thoughts into the universe for us, the better chance we have at beating this thing quickly.”

Early next month, Urnom will find out how his treatments are working. If things look good, the couple plans to take a cruise to Jamaica and a much-needed break from a trying journey.

For more information or to donate to Pancreatic Cancer Canada, click here.