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My fight for Herceptin

From Emma Kearns

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Emma was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2005 when she was just 27 years old. You may have heard or read about Emma because she was one of the many women who have been campaigning to get the breast cancer drug Herceptin. This is her story.

I noticed a hard area in my breast one evening while on the mobile phone to my mum. I decided to get it checked out with my GP just in case.

My doctor was sympathetic and advised me to keep an eye on it and to come back and see her in two weeks. She advised me that women’s breasts can change due to the monthly cycle and that it would be worth monitoring for any changes. On my return the area was still there and if anything, had become more rounded. My GP referred me to the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton where I was seen in the instant referral clinic. I had a core biopsy, ultrasound scan and mammogram that same day. The doctors told me that they were certain that it was breast cancer.

My treatment

I started chemotherapy almost straight away and was thrilled when I heard that my tumour had shrunk. I had surgery to remove it and eleven lymph nodes were also removed at the same time. Luckily, there were no active cancer cells in the lymph nodes and my doctors were pleased that they had managed to stop the cancer from growing. Additional good news was that my bone, liver and lung scans were all clear. However, I was advised to have further treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy, to target any stray cancer cells and prevent the cancer from coming back.

My battle for Herceptin

My doctors then advised me that I would be an ideal candidate for the drug Herceptin. At the time, Herceptin was only licensed for women with advanced breast cancer so the hospital applied to the exceptional circumstances panel of my local primary care trust (PCT) to fund this drug for me. The first request was rejected and for me this was devastating. It was almost as devastating as my cancer diagnosis, it felt like I was being told that I just was not worth the money.

The hospital appealed this decision providing the panel with the results of trials showing the benefits of Herceptin. At the same time my local MP appealed on my behalf and I was involved in some publicity with the Sun newspaper and ITV lunchtime news about Herceptin.

The new scientific information explaining the benefits of the drug helped influence the PCT, and they finally agreed to prescribe Herceptin for my particular case. I am delighted that it now looks like women in the same situation as I was will not have to go through this, and that if they need Herceptin, they should be able to have it.

Life doesn’t stop when you are diagnosed

When I was diagnosed, I felt so alone and isolated even though I had and continue to have wonderful support from my fiancé, my family and friends. I now know that you can hear the worst thing possible, pick yourself up, learn to live with a serious illness, have laughs along the way and in my case move on from it. It is tough, but there is so much support in all aspects of living with cancer. Life does not just stop once you are diagnosed (I thought it did) and things somehow seem that bit more beautiful.

Factfile

  • There are 48,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the UK every year but breast cancer in young women, like Emma, is rare - most cases are diagnosed in women over the age of 50
  • Treatment usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment
  • Herceptin is a new type of treatment - it works on cancer cells that have a large amount of a protein called HER2Neu or erbB2. This protein is a growth factor receptor. It transmits signals from outside the cell to the inside which make the cells grow. Herceptin attaches itself to this protein receptor and blocks it. So it can no longer tell the cancer cells to grow
  • Somewhere between 20 and 25 out of every 100 patients with early breast cancer (20 to 25%) are likely to respond to treatment with Herceptin

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Updated: 2 February 2011