Heather’s Story – Why Clinical Trials Matter

Heather is participating in a Phase I clinical trial at the NI Cancer Centre, Belfast City Hospital. As part of the celebration of International Clinical Trials Day on 20th May, she shares her story and explains why clinical trials are important to her.

What has led up to taking part in an early phase cancer clinical trial?

I’m a very keen cyclist and participated in cycling events such as the Mallorca 312. In January 2018 I attended my GP for bleeding ‘down below’ and was advised to take over-the-counter treatments for haemorrhoids. Months later, I realised the symptoms were not improving and I sought a private consultation. The doctor examined me and within minutes I received the news ‘this is very serious, there’s a tumour there, this is cancer’. I had rectal cancer.

In October 2018 I started a combination of chemotherapy and 5 weeks of radiotherapy treatment followed by further chemotherapy, then major surgery with Mr Aidan Armstrong and more chemotherapy for secondary cancer in the lung and liver. I then needed a third line of treatment, Lonsurf, which I stopped when the scan showed disease had grown.   My oncologists, Dr Richard Park, Dr Robert Harte and Dr Gemma Corey and all the team have been brilliant and I could not thank them enough.

How did you feel about taking part in research?

I started the clinical trial over a month ago. I always liked the idea of trying clinical trials and have had a family member who had a great experience – my cousin went on a clinical trial a number of years ago and it has kept everything under control for him.

I’ve been told this is not curable. I’m not going to get better but I could get something to keep it at bay. I prefer that option to ‘nothing we can do’. Now I’m with the research team – Professor Victoria Coyle and the research nurses Alison, Diane and Joanne. If there were no clinical trials, I don’t know where I would be.

What’s it like taking part in the clinical trial?

Four weeks after stopping the Lonsurf I got through study screening and started treatment. Being on the clinical trial has been very straightforward – weekly assessments, bloods and off I go. I take the clinical trial tablets in the morning and evening. The first month I had to record my blood pressure at home. I feel a bit tired but I’ve no sickness.

I have my scan on Friday and I will see how it goes. If disease stayed stable that would be very very positive. I remain positive – one day at a time and keep going, that’s all I can do.

Going through treatment – what difference has the COVID-19 pandemic made?

It can be hard with COVID – before I would have enjoyed weekends away, a wee break, now it’s very isolating. Dealing with that on top of everything else has been challenging!

I’ve not a bad word about the NHS from the day and hour I have seen the doctors and right through COVID. I have never had a worry. I got my treatment every week. My husband usually drops me off for hospital visits. In the early stage before the pandemic I would have had someone accompany me, but I’m ok going to the clinic by myself.

During the first wave of the pandemic there was a temporary move of treatment from the Bridgewater Suite in the Belfast City Hospital to the Ulster Independent Clinic and everything went as smooth as anything. The experience I have had – everyone has just been amazing – you’re one big team and you don’t realise the impact you have on people’s lives!

What else is important to you?

I live with my husband Martin and the dog. I have great support from my husband. We have a good wee team at home!

I also have to mention the District Nurses that have been calling with me every day to dress a wound since my subsequent surgery in October 2020 – they have all been amazing to me!

I continue to work and like to keep focused.

I always think, if only I had checked myself more. I always like to tell others about my experience so that I can encourage others to go to their GP and make sure you get a full examination!

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