We often write about the latest research in our labs, and the early leg-work at the start of the journey to find new treatments for people with cancer.
Equally, the headlines are often filled with news of treatments already available to UK patients. Especially where cost is concerned.
But what about the bit in between? What happens on that long road from laboratory breakthrough to patients receiving the treatment?
Let’s look at that process, and our role in it. It’s time to talk about clinical trials.
Trials are a vital part of our research, and play a crucial role in making new treatments available to patients. They’re also critical to improving the ones we already have. We’re proud to be the leading UK funder of cancer clinical trials, supporting more than 250 trials across the country.
And the clinical trials we’ve funded have saved the lives of many thousands of people in the UK and all over the world.
But not everyone is aware of the role that Cancer Research UK plays in funding, setting up and helping run clinical trials. So this month, we’re running a campaign to raise awareness of our work in this area.
Below, you can read three personal accounts from the thousands of people who’ve taken part in trials. And there’s more about these trials – including the UK’s only Plain English database of cancer trials – on our website.
‘Treatment can buy you years of enjoyable life’
In 2006, Vinod from Solihul received what he refers to as a “fluke” prostate cancer diagnosis.
“I had a sore throat and went to my doctor, who I hadn’t seen for years. He said that since I was 60, he could do an ‘MOT’ which included taking blood samples,” says Vinod.
One of the blood tests showed a higher than normal level of a marker protein called Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA). This raised a ‘red flag’, as higher levels of the protein can be a sign of prostate cancer.
A physical examination revealed that Vinod’s prostate was “very swollen and knobbly”. Further tests confirmed he had prostate cancer – and it was quite advanced.
“I was told it could either be a ‘pussycat’ or a ‘tiger’ – and mine was a tiger, which meant it could spread very fast,” he says. “After further tests, I was told the bad news that it had spread outside the prostate area. That was an absolute shock.”
Following some discussions about treatment, Vinod’s doctor told him about a clinical trial taking place in London that was testing the use of sounds waves – known as High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU) – as a potential treatment for prostate cancer.
After six months of treatment Vinod’s PSA was right down. “For many patients the treatment brought a complete cure,” he says. “But a couple of months later my PSA levels started rising again.”
Unfortunately for Vinod, the treatment hadn’t been completely successful.
Even after another round of ultrasound, Vinod’s PSA levels continued to rise. So he was referred to another hospital nearer to his home in Birmingham where he was given radiotherapy. This helped, and since then follow-up tests show his cancer is under control.
“When I got my cancer diagnosis I thought: ‘This is the first day of my new life.’ I have lived every day to the full since then.”
Following his experience, Vinod is showing his support for clinical trials: “Even if you can’t be cured, treatment can buy you years of enjoyable life,” he says.
‘I might not still be here without it’
Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. And several weeks after initially finding the cancer, her doctors discovered that it had spread to her liver.
And she’s really pleased with how things are going.
“The main aim of the trial was to keep things stable for me,” says Kelly. “It was always made quite clear to me that the treatment wasn’t a cure but, hopefully, it would keep the cancer from spreading.”
And so far the results have been encouraging: “I recently had my latest scan results. And, at the minute, I don’t have any measurable signs of cancer, which is really good news,” she says.
For Kelly, who’s married with three sons, Joshua, Ethan and Noah – plus a chocolate Labrador called Coco – it’s been important that the cancer and the trial itself haven’t stopped her from doing day-to-day things.
“From a personal point of view, I can be very honest and say I might not be here if it weren’t for the trial,” she says.
And that’s why Kelly is showing her support for clinical trials: “People who take part in clinical trials are paving the way for new cancer treatments to become available in the future. It’s definitely been a positive thing for me.”
‘From both my job and personal experience clinical trials are vital’
It’s close to 11 years since Nicki was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. And over the course of being treated, she’s taken part in two clinical trials.
Nicki, who works in Leeds as part of our regional press team, says that both her job and her personal experience have shown her how important clinical trials are. “Today, more and more people are surviving thanks to research, and cancer trials are crucial in helping to develop better and kinder treatments,” she says.
Fortunately, Nicki’s breast cancer was diagnosed early, which meant she was able to have surgery to remove the tumour – a procedure called a lumpectomy – rather than a full mastectomy. This was followed by radiotherapy, and the doctors also removed some lymph nodes to test for any signs that the cancer may have started to spread.
But these tests showed there were signs of cancer cells in her lymph nodes: she’d need chemotherapy, and further molecular tests showed that she might benefit from the hormone blocking drug tamoxifen and an antibody treatment that blocks cell growth called trastuzumab (Herceptin).
“Thanks to women who had agreed to go on trials before me, I was able to take tamoxifen and Herceptin, two life-saving drugs which are now standard treatments for certain types of breast cancer,” says Nicki.
It was at this point that Nicki was told by her consultant about clinical trials, and she signed up for a suitable one straight away.
“It was important to me to do something that might not only help my outcome, but could also help women diagnosed with breast cancer in the future.”
Nicki enrolled on a trial looking at whether different chemotherapy combinations reduced the risk of breast cancer coming back after surgery.
And for Nicki, taking part in the trials was a positive experience: “It gave me some control back over the cancer, and helped keep me strong and positive through my treatment,” she says.
“I also felt reassured by the extra and ongoing monitoring I had because of being on the trials.”
Trials play a vital role in helping develop new treatments, and improving the ones we already have, with each study carrying hundreds of personal stories.
And it’s through this type of research that we’re fortunate enough to hear those stories first hand, something Nicki sums up perfectly: “It will soon be 11 years since I was told I had cancer and I am very much still here, still working for Cancer Research UK, still living life to the full, and that’s thanks to research.”