A hairdresser who lost her mother to breast cancer is taking part in an international research trial in the NHS after being diagnosed with the condition.
Milton Keynes’ Colleen Thomson volunteered for the POSNOC trial at Milton Keynes University Hospital (MKUH) after being diagnosed following a routine check-up in June 2017.
She was approached by a research nurse in the Breast Care Unit who told her about the study, which is looking at whether an extra surgery to the armpit is necessary if the cancer has spread there.
The 54-year-old said of her diagnosis: “I thought I’d be more stressed out about it than I actually was. I was actually quite calm. I know some people would be freaked out by it, but my mother died of breast cancer, so my chances of developing cancer were possibly higher.
“I was approached soon after my diagnosis in the breast care unit. They felt because of my age, the type of breast cancer I had and where it was situated, I would be the ideal candidate.”
The POSNOC trial will recruit 1,900 women in 96 hospitals in the UK, with funding and support from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). It is also taking place in 19 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand.
Women who have surgery for breast cancer also undergo the removal of one or two lymph nodes in the armpit to see if the cancer has spread.
If the cancer has spread to the armpit, patients are offered further surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes in the armpit.
This can have long-term side effects such as swelling of the arm, shoulder stiffness or numbness of the hand.
Women now have the opportunity to be part of a large international trial where they receive routine radiotherapy to the breast and drug treatment but are randomly allocated to undergo further surgery to remove the remaining lymph nodes in the armpit or not.
Evidence suggests armpit surgery is unnecessary and researchers believe that drugs and radiotherapy to the breast alone can treat the cancer that has spread.
Miss Thomson, who was given radiotherapy to the breast alone, said: “I was quite relieved knowing that I wouldn’t have to have extra surgery. I had eight lymph nodes removed, only the first two had cancer. It wouldn’t have made any sense for me for them to operate again to remove the rest of them.
“If given the opportunity, you should take up the invitation to take part in research, simply because it’s got to help other people in the future, hasn’t it?
“If it means that it’s going to prevent other men and women having to go through unnecessary surgeries and trauma and shorten their recovery time, it’s got to be a good thing.”
She said of her condition: “It’s affected my life drastically. It meant that I couldn’t work; being a hairdresser I’m on my feet all day, waving my arms around. It’s quite a physical, mental and emotional job.”
Miss Thomson’s mother, Jackie, died within a month of being diagnosed with breast cancer aged 52 in 1995.
She said: “She’d been treated for a slipped disc that we now know was secondary cancer of the spine. She wasn’t actually diagnosed until we took her into hospital because she was in so much pain.
“She was a lot further along than anyone anticipated and unfortunately they didn’t have in place some of the treatments that are available now.
“I was absolutely devastated at the time. It happened so quickly and we hadn’t had time to take it in. The original prognosis when she was diagnosed was up to year for her to live so we still thought we had plenty of time.”
Miss Thomson is now cancer free and was well enough to return to her job as a hair stylist at the Cutting Company in Woburn Sands in September.
She said: “My overall experience has been positive. The study nurses have been very supportive, very informative, friendly and professional.
“I certainly would recommend research to other people. If given the opportunity and think it’s the right thing to do.”
Consultant breast surgeons Miss Rachel Soulsby and Miss Amanda Taylor and their team of research nurses – led by Louise Mew, Surgical Research Nurse – have recruited eight patients to the study at Milton Keynes University Hospital.
Miss Soulsby, the study’s lead investigator at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It is always important to us to be looking at treatments which give patients the opportunities to return to normal activities as soon as possible, and to reduce second operations and the anxieties this causes to patients.
“We do not want to be holding them back with complications of the surgery we have performed, reminding them every day they have had cancer, we want them to be survivors.”
The study is funded by the NIHR’s Health Technology Assessment Programme.
For more information on the trial and how to take part visit www.posnoc.co.uk.