How Karen has helped the next generation
Essex mum of four, Karen Hales, thrives on finding the positives in life. When receiving a surprise diagnosis of breast cancer, she immediately saw benefits in signing up to be part of a clinical research trial.
About one in eight women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Although potentially life threatening, there is a good chance of recovery when diagnosed and treated early.
In December 2007, Karen was just 37 when she noticed a lump in her breast. There was no history of cancer in her family and at first, she was keen to dismiss it. Sensibly though, she decided it was best to get it checked by her GP and it was there that her GP spotted an inverted nipple.
Karen was fast tracked to the breast screening unit at Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, where she received an ultrasound and examination. After a few nervous hours, the consultant confirmed that a calcified lump had been found and Karen still remembers receiving the news.
“I had watched enough of Holby [City] to know what that might mean,” Karen explains.
“I remember shaking and a lovely nurse called Anne holding my hand. The consultant explained that it might not be malignant, but I was still so shocked.”
A small biopsy was taken for testing and Karen awaited the diagnosis. Trying to maintain a normal routine for her children was tough, but she attended their Christmas school play the next day and attempted to maintain her usual positivity. Even then though, she couldn’t help but think “this could be the last one I see” and “who will look after them?”, she recalls.
The next week however, Karen was told the devastating news - she had breast cancer. She was scheduled for a mastectomy and given a deep bone scan to check that the cancer hadn’t spread to other parts of her body.
The scan itself was difficult for Karen, who has a fear of enclosed spaces, but once again she tried to find the positives and listened to her favourite tracks up loud whilst receiving the scan.
Thankfully the cancer had not spread, and Karen decided it was time to tell her children.
“It was Boxing Day” she recalls. “I decided it was best to wait until after Christmas Day. They were only young at the time, but I told them I used Kylie Minogue as an example [who had also had breast cancer and recovered].”
“I wasn’t sure if they understood but it was heart-breaking to hear my eight-year-old daughter ask: ‘Are you doing to die, mum?’”
At her next appointment, after six weeks recovery from the operation, the consultant told Karen about a trial she thought she could join. The next step in Karen’s treatment was chemotherapy and The TACT 2 trial was looking at whether accelerating doses of a drug called epirubicin and including the drug capecitabine, instead of standard treatment drugs, might speed up and improve outcomes and improve the patient’s quality of life during treatment.
“I didn’t have any doubts at all about being on the trial,” Karen says.
“There were lots of leaflets and information to explain about it, but I trusted the doctors and was happy put my faith in them and the research. I wanted to help move research forward and I’m an impatient person, so anything that sped up treatment was a benefit in my eyes. I like things done and dusted and wanted to get back to care for my kids.”
Chemo was tough but Karen’s treatment and the trial worked well, and she was soon free of the cancer. For the following five years she received regular six-monthly check-ups and took the standard drug, tamoxifen. Now, 15 years on, she receives two-yearly mammograms and is still cancer-free, happy and healthy.
Life has moved on too. With renewed vigour, she applied for an administrative role at Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust and began working there in 2017. Later, she progressed to work in the oncology department and now enjoys working in the very department where she was once a patient.
Seeing care and research from a more clinical view, she is ever more thankful that she took part in research. She says:
“Before I joined the trial, I’d only heard of research in the news. I thought it was something ‘other’ sorts of people did and never thought it could be me. Now I realise that anyone can take part and see how valuable research is to everyone.”
Karen also consented for some of her removed tissue to be tested as part of a research tissue bank and during COVID-19, took part in the healthcare worker SIREN study.
“Because of my work in oncology I can see how treatments improve and change through research and I like to think the trials I’ve been in could help towards that too,” says Karen.
“I see younger women coming through the ward and can see how important it is to find out what causes diseases and how we can treat them.”
Now an enthusiastic advocate of research she adds:
“If you get the chance to take part in a trial, just go for it! You have nothing to lose, you’re really well monitored and you’re helping the next generation of doctors and patients.”