Real Life

Nyree’s pancreatic pledge

The inspiring ‘five percenter’ is on a mission to improve the chances of all those battling this cancer

As one of the only Kiwis to live more than five years past being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Nyree Smith is not wasting a second of this precious life.

Last year, she organised the inaugural PanCan Gala, which raised more than $150,000, and the fiercely determined grandmother is dedicating her life to making memories with loved ones and helping other patients.

“When I looked up the statistics and realised how lucky I am, I kept thinking, ‘There must be a reason why I survived’,” says Nyree, 61. “For however long I’ve got left, I want to get out there and kick up enough noise for people to ask questions about their health.”

Nyree’s own shock diagnosis came in September 2017 when routine bloodwork with a new GP revealed she was pre-diabetic with reduced liver function. “I never felt like anything was wrong though,” says Nyree, explaining that pancreatic cancer symptoms such as backache, weight loss and stomach ache are so vague and varied, they often go undiagnosed until it’s too late.

“At the time, I was walking 5km at least three times a week, not drinking much, had just become a grandmother and was enjoying life.”

Despite being convinced she was fine, a follow-up MRI showed the former Tennis Auckland Interclub administrator had pancreatic cancer. An initial surgery to remove the tumour on her pancreas in October 2017 wasn’t successful when mid-operation they discovered it was too close to a major artery.

Chemotherapy came next to shrink the tumour to an operable size, followed by a second successful surgery and another round of chemo.

“In July 2018, they told me I was NED [no evidence detected]. I thought, ‘I’ve kicked this,’ and for the first time looked up statistics and realised how incredibly lucky I was to have had this GP who followed her gut instinct,” says Nyree, who calls herself a five percenter because she now knows that when she was diagnosed, there was only a five percent chance she’d survive five years. Of all major cancers in Aotearoa, pancreatic cancer has the lowest five-year survival rate.

In late 2019, Nyree learned her cancer had returned, this time in her lungs, but she refuses to give up. September 2022 marked the five-year milestone since diagnosis and she’s making the most of every moment, despite ongoing chemotherapy.

It was while talking to her beloved niece Ashlyn during a particularly gruelling chemo session that Nyree was inspired to plan the PanCan Gala, a charity evening to raise much-needed funds for research and awareness projects.

“I felt my brain was turning to mush and I needed something to focus on,” explains Nyree.

After much hard work and lots of support from an impressive line-up of sponsors, Nyree and the event committee hosted the first PanCan Gala in November, raising more than $150,000.

Husband Wayne with his gala girl.

“It has given me a huge purpose, some-thing to get up and fight for,” says Nyree, who was also awarded the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition International Outstanding Volunteer honour for 2022.

Nyree reveals $100,000 of the money they raised has gone to a research grant to stop pancreatic cysts developing into cancer, “so this will truly save lives”, she enthuses.

Reflecting on her journey, Nyree believes cancer has made her “a nicer person”.

“My life now is about making memories for my family and friends,” says Nyree, who’s grateful for the unwavering support of her husband Wayne, 67, son Conrad, 26, and his partner Adam, 36. “When you are faced every day with the fact it might be the last time you travel to somewhere or see someone or do something, everything becomes a little brighter and sharper.

“I think they’re proud of me, and I suppose I’m proud of myself too and the way I’ve handled this disease.”

She is also mum to daughter Leah Bryans, 30, and a gran to Elijah, five, Noah, three, Peyton, one, and six-month-old Wyatt, who live in Canada.

So proud of Nyree! With her rocks, son Conrad (right) and his partner Adam.

Nyree knows nothing is guaranteed, so true to her highly organised nature, she has already planned out every detail of her funeral.

“No one is allowed to wear black. It will be a celebration in the sunshine near the ocean,” she says smiling, adding with her trademark black humour, “One of my best friends reckons he’ll be there to talk and knowing him, he’ll probably knock my urn off the cliff!”

But before then, she has important goals to tick off for the future PanCan Galas.

“The survival rate 20 to 30 years ago for pancreatic cancer and breast cancer were similar, but someone survived long enough to keep fighting to increase the survival rate of breast cancer.

“I want to see the same for pancreatic cancer and if it’s not me, then for others to keep fighting for this,” asserts Nyree.

“My other goal is for the PanCan Gala to become the New Zealand version of the Met Gala. I want to take this horrible, nasty disease and turn it into something magnificent.”

To find out more about pancreatic cancer, visit

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