The Nottingham Campaign
“Early detection saves lives”
Dr Sally Chappell, 39, from Nottingham, explains why The University of Nottingham’s research into new blood tests to detect breast cancer is so important
Last year should have been one of the happiest of my life – after five years together my fiancé Tim and I had put down the deposit on our wedding and were about to start planning our dream day. However, in July 2015, in the midst of this, I was given news that turned my world upside down – I had Stage 4 breast cancer. Suddenly I went from choosing wedding venues to being in and out of a hospital ward.
Unlike many breast cancer patients, my diagnosis didn’t begin with the discovery of a lump – in fact, I had relatively few symptoms. I was in good health and went running every week, so when I noticed in June last year that my breasts felt different – as though the texture of the tissue had changed – I didn’t think it was anything serious.
Just to be sure, I booked an appointment with my GP, who didn’t seem too concerned. However, she arranged an appointment with the breast clinic at my local hospital for extra tests. I went to the appointment on my own, convinced it was nothing to worry about, but by the time they’d done an ultrasound, biopsy and mammogram I was beginning to get anxious.
A couple of days later Tim and I returned to the hospital, where the consultant explained I had breast cancer, but said they were also worried as they had noticed an inflamed
lymph gland in my armpit, which was a sign that the cancer had already spread. They organised a CT scan, which showed it had already spread to my liver and bones.
We were devastated, as once the cancer has spread they won’t do surgery – it is just a case of managing the illness. It was a complete bolt from the blue – especially being just 37 years old with no family history of any type of cancer – and I was filled with worry for our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Scarlet, who I feared I would never see grow up. However, I decided I needed to just focus on getting through the chemotherapy.
Within ten days I attended my first chemotherapy treatment. I had six rounds, which lasted for 18 weeks, then 20 sessions of radiotherapy on consecutive days throughout December 2015.
Although the chemotherapy wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, the radiotherapy was extremely tiring – I was receiving the treatment every day so it was a combination of side effects and also the travel and time spent waiting in the hospital. I tried to maintain some sense of normality by carrying on with my work as a lecturer and researcher in human molecular genetics at The University of Nottingham and my commitments as Nottingham’s official Maid Marian (my husband is the city’s official Robin Hood). But there were times I was simply too tired or unwell.
Since finishing radiotherapy, I have been taking a drug called tamoxifen – a pill that stops my tumour from responding to the oestrogen in my body – and also have an injection every four weeks, which helps to keep my bones strong.
There’s a possibility I’ll need different treatment at some point, but the future is uncertain because everybody’s cancer responds to treatment differently, which is one of the things that’s hardest to deal with. My cancer is classed as incurable, so I’ll never be in remission, and they can’t predict how long I have left to live. Until it starts to progress horribly it’s not classed as terminal, so I’m not dying – I’m still working, I’m still planning a wedding, I’m still carrying on. I am a big believer in the saying ‘life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain’, and that’s how I try to live my life.
Although my cancer can’t be cured, I do feel I am in the best hands possible with my treatment, as there’s a lot of great research going on at The University of Nottingham, which is really comforting. I know they will put me on the best possible treatment or trial.
The university’s research into blood tests for breast cancer is incredibly important and could massively increase survival rates. If they can diagnose the disease earlier they will reduce the amount of people who end up in my situation, where you don’t know about it until it’s too late, and they can treat it in a way that is less stressful for the patient. A good screening system could go hand in hand with self-examination, to help increase early detection and save lives.
THE FACTS – The Nottingham Campaign
- Over 1.6 million women worldwide are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and although huge strides have been made, 10,000 women still die from the disease every week.
- The University of Nottingham is trying to raise £1 million to support its life-saving research.
- Research includes creating a blood test to detect the disease early, discovering why breast cancer spreads and finding new ways to stop it, and developing effective treatments.
- Find out more about the research and how you can help support it at nottingham.ac.uk/lifecycle.
BIG GIVE UPDATE
The University of Nottingham’s Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer will use the £36,750 raised to develop new blood tests to detect breast and colon cancer – the second and third most common types of cancer – which will lead to more lives being saved through early diagnosis.
As told to Hannah McLoughlin. Photos by Annie Johnston