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The career of inspirational and internationally-renowned surgeon and PLANETS founder Neil Pearce was celebrated by colleagues, patients and charity supporters at an event this week (Tuesday, 25 April).

Neil, 56, who revolutionised liver surgery and saved the lives of thousands of patients, is retiring from his role as associate medical director for patient safety at University Hospital Southampton.

This is a role he took on after his surgical career was tragically cut short when he was diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis.

As a consultant surgeon specialising in pancreatic, liver and neuroendocrine tumours (NETs), he established a world-leading centre in Southampton which he led from 2005 to 2013 before he was forced to stop operating.

During this time he performed more than 1,000 major cancer operations, introducing new techniques and procedures along the way and developing a reputation for taking on cases others had determined were inoperable – saving the lives of many patients who otherwise had exhausted their options.

He pioneered keyhole surgery for liver cancer in the UK and has trained surgeons from almost every unit in the UK, as well as many abroad, and championed the multi-team approach to tackling advanced cancer using all the different methods of treatment available.

He also transformed the treatment of NETs in Southampton and across the country with the creation of a team of dedicated professionals covering all the specialist requirements of the management of NET patients.

NETs are rare types of cancer which are usually found in the pancreas, bowel or lungs but can also develop in other parts of the body and arise from cells which form a link between the nervous system and the glands which produce hormones.

If detected early they can often be cured with surgery but, at present, most are diagnosed at a later stage when they have already spread to other parts of the body.

Through Neil’s interventions as a locum consultant in 2005 when he questioned why surgery was not being performed on this group of patients, he fundamentally changed the treatment protocol and, as a result, many patients who previously would have lived for two or three years are now living well past expectations, with a very good quality of life.

Alongside his clinical practice, Neil saw the need for a charity to offer support for patients on these complex journeys and help provide innovative cancer treatments many years sooner than the existing NHS mechanisms could allow.

This led to the creation of PLANETS Cancer Charity, which he founded in 2011 alongside consultant interventional radiologist Dr Brian Stedman and neuroendocrine tumour patient Layla Stephen, with fellow patient Jo Green joining the trio shortly after its formation.

What initially started as a one-off campaign to raise £70,000 for a new ultrasound scanner has ended up 12 years later having raised more than £2 million and been behind revolutionary developments such as purchasing the UK’s first mobile electron beam radiotherapy machine – Mobetron – which is able to deliver radiotherapy to advanced cancers during surgery.

He also leaves a legacy of so often achieving the impossible for his patients, such as Susan Rostron, 69, from Dorset, who had been told an 11lb cancerous growth on her pancreas was inoperable back in 2011.

An email she sent to the NET tissue bank Neil had set up in Southampton asking if they would like her tumour for research purposes after she died made its way to him. He then contacted her to say he could perform “extreme surgery” which would involve removing her pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, stomach and part of the oesophagus.

The 12-hour operation was a success and Susan was given the all-clear, leaving her to enjoy the future running her pottery studio.

Among many other highlights, he operated live by video link to 2,000 consultants at a meeting in Switzerland, set up a liver surgery unit in the Caribbean which he is still part of and has presented and published his work across the world.

“I have had a crazy career and sometimes I feel I’ve had several as a trainee, consultant surgeon, lead medical examiner and associate medical director and my charity career which is ongoing,” said Neil.

“I was trained by surgeons who always felt the bar could be raised higher and they would do things others wouldn’t – this suited my character, personality traits and beliefs.

“They were also adored by their patients and I wanted that, so throughout my career I treated them like friends – if you put yourself in a patients’ position it changes how you see things.

“PLANETS has transformed so many things, including the relationship between clinicians, patients, families and the public, and it is certainly the thing out of everything I am most proud of.”

Layla Stephen, now chief executive of PLANETS and one of Neil’s patients, said: “Neil is unique. A huge role model who cares deeply about his patients and I have had the pleasure of watching him for the last 14 years touch more lives than I can possibly count.

“We are all so incredibly lucky to have Neil in our lives. The enormous difference Neil has made to so many lives, across the board, is nothing short of a miracle.

“When we talk about legends, there is absolutely no doubting Neil is one of those and he deserves all the plaudits he will receive upon retirement.”

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