An Oxford cancer patient who was told she may have only eighteen months to live is free from signs of the disease after taking a trial drug for almost three years. Susan Cakebread received her pioneering treatment at the Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit at Oxford’s Churchill Hospital which aims to discover new treatments for the future.
Now Susan will be a special guest at World Cancer Day celebrations in Oxford on the 4th February – her 69th birthday – when the Lord Mayor will launch a programme of events to unite the city. Doctors, scientists and patients will join members of the public in Bonn Square to form a human chain to mark World Cancer Day. They want others to wear Unity Bands to show their support for Susan and others affected by cancer.
The mother of two was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2008 after finding a spot on her head which became bigger and harder over a few weeks. Although the news hit her hard she vowed to stay positive and strong for her husband, Brian, 72, and family. The couple have a son, Andrew, 42, and a daughter, Nikki, 40, who with her husband Enton has a home in Oxford.
Susan was treated with surgery and had a skin graft before attending regular check-ups for the next three and a half years. During a holiday in Dorset in 2012 she became unwell with kidney stones and was admitted to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading where an X-ray for her condition also showed up abnormal spots in her lungs. Further tests confirmed her cancer had come back and spread to both lungs.
Susan, who lives near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, was offered the option of joining a clinical trial in Oxford by her consultant.
She said: “Having been told I would probably only live for about eighteen months without treatment it was a no brainer. I wanted a chance to live”
She was one of the first patients enrolled in the trial testing a new type of immunotherapy and started a regime of weekly trips to Oxford for treatment, tests and results.
The team at the Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit treat on average 18 patients a day, testing new drugs and therapies in patients as well as new combinations of existing treatments. Many of the patients have advanced cancer and are no longer benefiting from standard cancer treatment.
“I was really nervous but the staff and general atmosphere was so friendly and relaxed. I also found their honesty reassuring. They told me the trial was new and there were no guarantees it would work. To begin with the side effects were pretty awful and the research nurses spent hours monitoring me. I had a rash and pink eyes but gradually the side-effects settled down and I was able to go home soon after each treatment. Because I was doing well – not everybody does – I was kept on the trial and by 2014 the tumour in my left lung had disappeared on scans and the other had shrunk by a third”.
A few weeks ago the remainder of the tumour in her right lung was removed in a six hour operation and subsequent tests have indicated Susan is clear of any signs of cancer in both lungs.
“When I was given the results I had a few tears. I have been very lucky. I didn’t even find the treatment that hard to cope with. I believe I am the longest survivor on this trial drug”.
She has now been able to stop the treatment and will only return to the clinic for regular three-monthly check-ups although she hopes that will be extended if all goes well.
“I will miss going to the unit every week. I have been bowled over by their friendliness and professionalism. They encouraged me to look ahead and stay positive. I never wanted friends and family to see me and think about the ‘Big C’. I believe it was best to get it out in the open so that everyone knew and could talk about it openly”.
Her husband, Brian, added: “The doctors spotting the lung tumours in the X-ray Susan had for the kidney stones could have saved her life. Although she had no symptoms, the melanoma had spread to her lungs and there was little else doctors could offer her. But thanks to the clinical trial and this new drug, we could have years together.”
Susan and Brian are highlighting the Unity Bands as leading cancer charities – Cancer Research UK, Breast Cancer Care, Anthony Nolan and the Movember Foundation – join forces for World Cancer Day. There will be a range of events held in Oxford for World Cancer Day, to find out more click here.
The four charities uniting for World Cancer Day touch the lives of millions of people every year through the prevention, detection, treatment and support of those affected by cancer.
Helen Johnstone, for Cancer Research UK, said: “So many of us have been affected by the disease, which is why on February 4 we want people to wear their Unity Band with pride. Success stories like Susan’s would not be possible without the commitment of our amazing supporters. Wearing a Unity Band is a simple way to show support and a small action taken by many people really can make a huge difference.”
The Unity Bands are available from each charity in their own colours at www.worldcancerday.co.uk for a suggested donation of £2. All money raised from the Unity Bands will go towards the charities’ individual research projects and support services