Rebecca Allison had never felt so good when she took a powerful hill walk with her husband or played with her two lively grandchildren.
The birth of Nathan, now eight, and Caitlin, six, had given Rebecca – a smoker for over 50 years – the incentive she needed to quit her 30-day habit four years ago. She felt so good that when her doctor asked her if she would like to do a revolutionary blood test that could detect lung cancer years before the symptoms appeared, she didn’t think twice about it.
But two days later, the mother of two was called to say she had the disease. “I was shocked,” says Rebecca, 69, who lives in Glasgow. “After sharing a few tears with my husband, Ben, we decided not to tell our children until we had to. I vowed to take life one by one. “
Rebecca Allison (left), 69, and Shirley Dolan, 63, were both recipients of a revolutionary blood test that discovered their lung cancer
It was the start of a two-year roller coaster of emotions for Rebecca, because the next day an X-ray showed that her lungs were actually free of the disease. “I felt relieved, even happy,” she says. “But I kept thinking, why was my blood test positive for cancer? It gnawed at me. “
Rebecca was one of more than 12,000 smokers who participated in a test with a test that can detect lung cancer up to four years before tumors appear on scans – all with a few drops of blood.
Approximately 47,000 Britons are diagnosed with lung cancer every year, making it the most common form of the disease. And with 35,300 deaths a year – nearly 100 a day – it kills more people than any other cancer.
Most common among smokers, it is usually symptomless in the early stages. As a result, 80 percent of cases are picked up late in the disease when it is more difficult to treat.
Less than 5 percent of patients survive for five years or more if their cancer is only picked up when it is very advanced, compared to 57 percent when it is detected early.
The new test aims to change this by checking blood samples for seven antibodies – proteins made by the immune system to defend the body against the cancer.
The new blood test checks blood samples for seven antibodies – proteins made by the immune system to defend the body against the cancer (stock image)
It is crucial that these antibodies are often present when the cancer has just started to grow and is years away from causing symptoms or appearing in a scan. A lung cancer tumor must measure approximately 8 mm to be detected on a scan or X-ray.
Rebecca and other test volunteers had a blood test called an EarlyCDT-Long test – and if this turned out to be positive, they underwent x-rays and CT scans every six months.
After her positive result, Rebecca, a care manager, showed three scans showing that her lungs were clear until the fourth – 20 months after the blood test – yielded a positive result.
“I was scared of every scan and then relieved. But my luck increased in October 2017 when a 5 cm tumor appeared in my upper left lung. I knew I had to deal with it. “
Rebecca (photo) underwent keyhole surgery to remove the tumor, but did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy. She now has scans every six months
She told the children to her children – Victoria, 40 and Andrew, 38 – just before her operation the following month, determined not to show her concern.
“I was secretly afraid that I wouldn’t live to enjoy Christmas with my family. But the doctors told me that the cancer was at an early stage and that I had a good chance of enduring all of this. “
Rebecca underwent keyhole surgery to remove the tumor, but did not need chemotherapy or radiotherapy. She now has scans every six months.
‘I was lucky. Without the trial, I would be dead. This test is a life saver, “she says.
Dr. Adam Hill prefers to call it a game changer. He is CEO of Oncimmune, the blood testing company that has developed the EarlyCDT-Long test, currently used in 24 countries, including the US.
Global tests have shown that it can detect lung cancer up to four years before the tumors become visible in scans.
“Studies show that 40 percent of lung cancer is diagnosed with A&E when patients are present, a common symptom is coughing up blood,” Dr. Hill out.
Although the EarlyCDT-Long test only checks for lung cancer, the same technology also supports a test for liver cancer, launched in 2018. Tests for breast, ovarian and prostate cancer are under development.
Of the 60 volunteers in the blood test who subsequently developed lung cancer within two years, more than 40% were diagnosed at stage one and two, compared to only 27% in standard clinical practice (stock image)
Results of the pinprick blood test are available within four hours and cost less than £ 200 per person privately. Oncimmune claims that it can detect all types of lung cancer at all stages with high accuracy.
Rebecca was part of a trial aimed at people aged 50 and over in Scotland who had smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years or more because they are statistically more at risk for lung cancer.
Of the 60 volunteers in the study who subsequently developed lung cancer within two years, more than 40 percent were diagnosed in stage one and two, compared to just 27 percent in standard clinical practice. There was also a lower death rate in this group.
Dr. Hill says that treating Rebecca’s early diagnosis costs the NHS around £ 5,000 compared to a bill of more than £ 50,000 to treat an advanced lung cancer patient with surgery, medication, and other procedures.
“And it is so much less traumatic for the patient, because they may not have to undergo heavy chemotherapy or radiotherapy until a year after,” he says.
Dr. Hill now hopes to conduct tests in the UK, involving as many as 200,000 people with a history of smoking. In the meantime, although the test is being used in private hospitals in the UK, the Department of Health’s green light still needs to be approved for use by NHS.
Another grateful pioneer of the new test is the 63-year-old Shirley Dolan, a mother of three from Dundee, the first patient to be tested, diagnosed, and cured with the EarlyCDT-Long test.
The former nurse smoked up to 30 cigarettes a day from her teenage years to just a few hours before undergoing lung cancer surgery in March 2014. She was diagnosed when she got the test after her doctor suggested it as part of a trial.
Shirley was operated on but needed no further treatment
“I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t have any symptoms, but an X-ray confirmed that I had two tumors in my right upper lung, although luckily there was benignness. The cancerous wax was between 3 cm to 5 cm long. “
Shirley was operated on but needed no further treatment. “I have never touched a cigarette since then,” she says. “I was lucky to get a second chance at life.”
Unfortunately, when Shirley returned to the hospital after her surgery, she heard that one of her fellow theater nurses had been diagnosed with lung cancer while she was away and died. She, too, had shown no symptoms, but her lung cancer was already at a late stage when it was discovered.
Dr. Richard Roope, a senior clinical advisor for cancer prevention and early diagnosis for Cancer Research UK, gently welcomes the EarlyCDT-Long test. “It has the potential to be exciting, but more research is needed to decide who to test,” he says. “We are at the start of changes in how we look for cancer that will lead to more diagnostic options.
“The UK is the sick man of Europe in the survival competitions of lung cancer, so any development that can improve detection is a good thing.”
Before the operation, Rebecca had wrapped her family’s Christmas presents because she was afraid she would not see Christmas Day, but on December 23, 2017, she received the best gift anyone could get – the all-clear. “That’s when I cried,” she says.
Like many who participated in the process, it breathes – in all respects – more easily today.
- Extra time – Portraits of hope and survival from early cancer detection, extratime.gallery