Date: 05 October 2017
A woman being treated for breast cancer has spoken of her research experience after an NHS trial drug is thought to have stopped her tumour from growing before it was surgically removed.
Chipping Norton’s Judith Yarrow, 64, spoke during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual international health campaign organised by major breast cancer charities every October.
The grandmother-of-five was diagnosed aged 62 with oestrogen-positive breast cancer in November 2015 after noticing an abnormality.
Mrs Yarrow said: “My husband and I had just had a holiday to visit my brother in China and I felt particularly fit and well - we’d done some trekking in the mountains and cycling. We came back and two days later I noticed something different about my breast that made me think that something could be wrong.
“I went to the doctor immediately and I could tell by the look on her face that she was not optimistic. Two weeks after that I saw my consultant, Pankaj Roy, at the Horton General Hospital in Banbury and she took one look at it and she said ‘I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t look good’.
“I was just in a state of shock. I’m sure that is the reaction of everybody. You think they’re talking to a different person in the room, it can’t be you.”
Mrs Yarrow was immediately offered the ‘Phase II window of opportunity study of short-term preoperative treatment with enzalutamide (alone or in combination with exemestane) in patients with primary breast cancer’ (ARB) study by Miss Roy, to see if enzalutamide, a drug already used to treat prostate cancer, can slow the growth of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) before surgery.
TBNC is not responsive to anti-oestrogen medications normally used to treat breast cancer.
Early evidence suggests enzalutamide could block tumour growth.
Patients with other breast cancers are also being asked to take part to see if it is more effective than current treatments.
Participants are randomly allocated to receive either the standard anti-oestrogen treatment, exemestane, alone or in combination with the trial drug. Mrs Yarrow took the trial drug.
This is to compare the results of those undergoing standard treatment to those given the trial drug alongside it.
Mrs Yarrow said: “You always have to wait before having the operation and I was anxious to not get worse beforehand, so Miss Roy suggested I went on the trial because it could prevent it from growing. She thought there was a chance it would prevent it from getting any bigger, so that seemed like the right thing to do while I was waiting.
“The tumour was smaller than they thought it would be when they took it out, so it certainly hadn’t got bigger.
“I’m glad that I was on this trial. I didn’t find it difficult to make a decision on. It seemed like a no brainer because it’s a stage two trial, so you know it’s been through other tests and you know they wouldn’t put you on it if there wasn’t a good chance it was going to be a good outcome.
“I feel a connection to all the women who have gone before and have been on trials to advance cancer treatment. It was good to feel I could do something positive at this difficult time.
“When I was a student, in the early 70s, I had a book called ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’, which had a section about breast cancer treatment. When I looked back at that a few months ago, I was amazed to see how much has changed since then.
“You were much less likely to survive a diagnosis of breast cancer and now it’s something you can be treated for and move on in life. In those days I would have had a mastectomy, whereas now it’s a lot less invasive, and it’s only because people have been on those trials that treatments are better now.
“I like that feeling of being part of the research and its history.”
Mrs Yarrow is living well since she had surgery to remove the tumour in December 2015. She is cancer free and able to continue doing the things she loves, such as her career in art and caring for her five grandchildren.
She said: “Shortly after finishing the active treatments, my husband and I went on a walking holiday to the Faroe Islands and I did a body of paintings to do with that.
“I’ve also made a book to do with the experience of treatment, which I gave to the Churchill Hospital, so that was a hand-sewn artist book about my experience. It was a positive one, because the people there were fantastic and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
“I’m pretty busy with grandchildren, particularly over the summer months. While they’re all small - the youngest is nine months and the oldest is eight years - I really like to spend time with them”
Pankaj Roy, consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the study’s principal investigator, said: “Judith was happy to participate in the study primarily to help and assist with medical research.
“The study has been received very well by women undergoing treatment for breast cancer in Oxford. Such studies are labelled as ‘window of opportunity’ studies as they are designed in such a way that do not interfere with cancer treatment pathway.
“The women are asked to take the medications for few weeks whilst they are waiting for their surgery, which means that their treatment plan is not delayed or altered. This is crucial as it’s not easy time in their life.
“My hope is to find another drug that is effective; thus increasing the options to treat breast cancer. We know that a significant number of oestrogen-receptor positive cancers stop responding to anti-oestrogen therapy by developing resistance and another drug like enzalutamide would expand the options for those patients.”
The ARB study is supported by the NIHR Clinical Research Network Thames Valley and South Midlands (CRN), which is part of the National Institute for Health Research, a Department of Health-funded organisation that provides funding to get trials up and running in the health service. It is sponsored by the Queen Mary University of London.
Participating in health research helps develop new treatments, improve the NHS and save lives.
The NHS supports research through asking patients if they wish to take part in trials and healthy people if they also wish to take part so results can be compared to those with a medical condition.
Patients are also encouraged to ask their doctor about research opportunities and view trials seeking volunteers at The UK Clinical Trials Gateway at www.ukctg.nihr.ac.uk.
Mrs Yarrow’s Faroe Island paintings and hand-sewn book can be seen at her Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas Open Studio Exhibition at 8 Cross Leys, Chipping Norton, OX7 5HG from 24 to 26 November from 10am to 5pm. For further details visit www.judithyarrow.com or www.artweeks.org.