Cancer doctors from the West of Scotland Cancer Network (WoSCAN) are marking the lifesaving contribution of thousands of women by publicly saying Thank You for the first time to breast cancer patients who have been helping to develop new treatments and save lives, due to their participation in clinical trials.
In 2005, 712 women being treated at West of Scotland cancer centres, led by the Beatson Oncology Centre (BOC), volunteered to take part in clinical and surgical trials as part of their treatment. In total, more than 17,000 patients were recruited to 38 breast cancer studies across the UK in 2005, meaning women from the West of Scotland made up around 4% of the total number of volunteers – a percentage considerably higher than the national average. Today’s Thank You is an effort by the medical teams involved to show their gratitude to the patient volunteers.
Philippa Whitford, Chair of the West of Scotland breast cancer network, explains the importance of their role: “Scientific research can be highly sophisticated but it needs the participation of patients. It’s absolutely vital that women know the role that clinical research plays because, of course, without their participation these kinds of trials simply couldn’t happen.
“Each generation of breast cancer patients benefits from the knowledge gained in treating those who came before them. By taking part in trials of new drugs, radiotherapy treatments or surgical techniques, they contribute to the treatment options available to patients who come after them.
“The treatment these women go through can be very gruelling. It’s incredibly humbling that so many of them also choose to be part of studies that might be of no immediate benefit to them but that could save the lives of other women in future. Project Thank You is all about acknowledging their generosity. It’s a privilege to be able to thank them for their life-saving contribution.”
A classic example of the importance of the trials process is the drug Herceptin. Due to the large number of women who took part in these trials and the dramatic results obtained, this drug has become available to women with Herceptin-sensitive breast cancer very quickly. While many patients who took part may now be glad they did, at the time of the trial they faced uncertainty with the risk of side effects in exchange for the possibility of no benefit to themselves.
Several of the women who took part in the original UK trials were from the West of Scotland. Among the patients being treated on the Herceptin trial at Crosshouse Hospital
in Kilmarnock was -year-old Vivienne from Irvine, who was diagnosed in January 2004: “I was told I would be suitable for two drug trials that were running at that time. The first was the TANGO trial and the other was the HERA trial, which was studying the use of Herceptin as a treatment for women with early stage breast cancer. It is made clear from the outset of every trial that the particular drug in question may not benefit you personally, or you may not be selected to actually have it, but I felt that even if I gained nothing from taking part, I had nothing to lose and it might help someone eventually.
"I was randomly selected to receive Herceptin for two years. The two years were up in November last year and throughout that time, the Herceptin story grew and grew, and I feel I was lucky to have been given the chance to have this drug."
Clinical Director of the Beatson Oncology Centre, Professor Alan Rodger, said: “These brave women who have had the generosity to take part in clinical trials have helped improve cancer treatment for thousands of future patients and, therefore, have played their part in saving countless lives.
“It is partly because of extraordinary women like these that survival rates for breast cancer in the West of Scotland are going up year after year. On behalf of the thousands of women who are now and will in the future benefit from the new treatments that come out of these trials, I’d like to thank them most sincerely. Their contribution has been immense.”
The new £105 million Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre is almost ready to open and will further enhance the role played by WoSCAN in undertaking research. A cutting-edge clinical trials and research unit will be a key part of the new state-of-the-art facility, placing the role of those patients who take part in trials at the heart of the treatment process.
40-year-old Vivienne from Irvine was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2004.
"After surgery to remove a tumour from my right breast in February 2004 and the news that I would need chemotherapy, I was told that I would be suitable for two drug trials that were running at that time.
"The first was the TANGO trial and the other was the HERA trial, which was studying the use of Herceptin as a treatment for women with early stage breast cancer.
"I was given plenty of time to go away and read all the literature, and to think about whether I wanted to take part. But, for me, there was very little soul-searching. I think I had made up my mind almost as soon as clinical trials were mentioned. Signing up for the trials was, in a sense, like taking control. After the shock of a cancer diagnosis, it's easy to feel overwhelmed - overwhelmed with emotions, with information, with sheer panic. Looking
back, I think perhaps consenting to take part in the trials was my way of getting back up, dusting myself down and feeling that I was doing something positive about it. "Cancer is always talked about in terms of a battle and I saw the trials as another weapon being offered to me for the fight ahead.
"It is made clear from the outset of every trial that the particular drug in question may not benefit you personally, or you may not be selected to actually have it, but I felt that even if I gained nothing from taking part, I had nothing to lose and it might help someone eventually.
"On the down side, being part of a trial means possible side effects and more hospital visits. But you are closely monitored for any side effects and the appointments don't really encroach too much. Throughout the trial, apart from three-weekly visits to hospital to have Herceptin, I considered my life was back to normal - I worked full time and did all the things I had done before the cancer diagnosis.
"I was randomly selected to receive Herceptin for two years - the two years were up in November last year and throughout that time, the Herceptin story grew and grew, and I feel I was lucky to have been given the chance to have this drug, and lucky to have been involved in the testing of a drug that has made such a huge impact."