When Carol Wallis found out her breast cancer had returned for the sixth time in 28 years, she feared she would be out of treatment options.
But a new chemotherapy treatment called electrochemotherapy has provided the 63-year-old grandmother-of-six with new hope.
Carol was the first person to receive the treatment at the Royal Free Hospital, although it has been performed at a limited number of other hospitals in the UK. Just four weeks after having the treatment, the cancer nodules on her chest had disappeared.
The Royal Free has now become the national reference centre for patients with breast cancer who could benefit from electrochemotherapy – a treatment which uses electrical pulses to stimulate cancer cells, making them porous and more receptive to cancer-killing drugs.
Consultant oncological surgeon Mr Mo Keshtgar who performed the procedure and will lead the new centre of excellence, said: “Essentially, electrochemotherapy is a treatment which uses an old drug but with new tricks.
“The drug, which is called Bleomycin, is given to the patient intravenously. We then use a special electrode to target the tumour tissue with an electric field. This stimulates the cancer cells and increases their permeability by 8,000 fold – allowing more of the drug to enter the cells. This dramatically increases the effectiveness of treatment and for Carol, we started to see a response after two weeks and now the cancer on her chest has completely disappeared.
“The drug has a very low toxicity so it has very few side effects. The procedure only takes 30 minutes and it is often not necessary to stay in hospital afterwards, so there are clearly many benefits for patients. The success rate is very good – studies show between 79% and 85% of patients benefit from the treatment. It would also have a significant cost saving potential for the NHS as the alternative treatment options are very costly.
“We’re thrilled to become a designated reference centre for patients who have experienced a recurrence and spread of breast cancer. We will accept referrals from all over the country so that as many patients as possible can benefit from this exciting new treatment.”
Carol, of Wantage, Oxfordshire, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983 and after suffering a recurrence in 1993, tests revealed she had a faulty BRCA1 gene, which is linked to hereditary breast cancer. She suffered further recurrences around 1998, 2001, 2002, and earlier this year.
During her battle with cancer, Carol has undergone partial mastectomies and later a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, as well as taking anti-cancer drugs such as Tamoxifen. She also had an extensive reconstructive surgery earlier this year which took muscles and skin from her upper back to create a new breast.
When the cancer returned yet again this year, Carol feared she had few treatment options left, until she was referred to Mr Keshtgar.
Carol, a retired dental nurse who has two daughters, said: “It was really rather frightening – I just felt like I was running out of things to try. I really didn’t want to go through another round of chemotherapy because the side effects for me have been terrible.
“You put your whole body through chemotherapy over a course of months and all that time you just hope it attacks the right areas. With electrochemotherapy, you’re targeting the cells directly and it only takes 30 minutes. The procedure was fine and wasn’t too painful at all. Obviously I’m very pleased that I’ve responded to the treatment and it’s really quite amazing to see results so quickly. I never want to tempt fate but it has given me hope.
“My daughter Lisa has inherited the faulty BRCA1 gene and I’ve four granddaughters who may or may not have inherited it. I’m happy to try new treatments so that technological developments can continue and perhaps help them in years to come, as well as giving me more time to spend with them.”
Watch Carol’s story on ITV news
Notes to editors
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The Royal Free runs a dedicated breast clinic staffed by two consultant breast surgeons supported by surgical staff and clinical nurse specialists from the breast unit. The diagnostic breast team includes clinicians, two specialist breast radiologists and two breast pathologists.
A full range of breast surgery procedures are available at the Royal Free. The breast surgeons are part of a multidisciplinary breast cancer team which includes medical and clinical oncologists, nuclear medicine, clinical geneticist and nursing support. For more information about the unit, visit the Royal Free website
The Royal Free is Dr Foster’s ‘large trust of the year’ for 2010. Our services have been rated “excellent” for the third year running, most recently by the Care Quality Commission. The trust attracts patients from across the country and beyond to its specialist services in liver, kidney and bone marrow transplantation, haemophilia, surgery for hepatopancreatobiliary (HPB) conditions, clinical neurosciences, renal, HIV, infectious diseases, plastic surgery, immunology, vascular surgery, cardiology, amyloidosis and scleroderma and are a member of the academic health science partnership UCL Partners.