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How taking part in research helped me get my life back on track and overcome cancer

Published: 13 July 2020

Hairdressing and beauty salon owner Karen Davis faced one of her biggest challenges when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She writes about how participating in a pioneering NIHR-funded trial helped her treatment and the prospects for other women who may be diagnosed in future. 

I can still vividly remember the day my world fell apart.

It was a wet, dismal August day and I was looking out of the window onto a rain-soaked brick hospital building at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust  as my consultant, Professor Kirby, with his big bright bow tie, told me I had breast cancer.

It was at a point in my life where I was 45 years old and very fit and healthy. I was busy running my own hairdressing and beauty salon and wig studio and getting up early in the morning to go for long distance runs - I’ve completed 21 marathons, including Paris.

Despite this shocking news, Professor Kirby told me I had a small tumour measuring 1.6cm and it was hormone-receptor-positive, which he said was good. My thoughts were, “how can any cancer be good?” I thought it was bad and that I might die.

He explained that it was treatable due to being diagnosed early. And I was given new hope when I learned getting involved in research could help.

One-week radiotherapy course

Later my oncologist, Professor Murray Brunt suggested taking part in the FAST-Forward trial, a clinical trial funded and supported by NIHR, testing how a shorter course of radiotherapy delivered in one-week - over five days - compared to a standard treatment of three-weeks. I wanted to take part in the study to help future generations of ladies in my position. In addition, in the back of my mind I felt taking part in the trial meant even more checks and monitoring than normal and being looked after well. This gave me a lot of comfort and confidence. 

An important moment was when I discovered which treatment plan I would be allocated to. Rowena, the Local Study Co-ordinator and Radiographer, telephoned the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, London and provided them with certain details of my tumour and I learned I’d be given the one week course.

I was sick with nerves before starting the treatment - my stomach was churning, so I think it was easier for me mentally to know that it was only five days. I didn’t like the thought of having three weeks of radiotherapy and the effect that might have on me, not to mention my hairdressing business. It meant I could go back to work sooner, which, when you’re running your own business, means a lot.

Rowena was really helpful. She answered any questions that I had and explained about how my chosen treatment plan would work. This understanding gave me confidence about my treatment.

Coping with ‘Colin’

I had a lumpectomy and my tumour and tissue surrounding it was removed before undergoing radiotherapy. At the beginning I aimed to undergo the radiotherapy sessions and then go back to work, but after the treatments I felt so tired. I was glad it was a shorter course. Throughout my diagnosis and treatment I felt unable to talk about cancer, so I called it 'Colin' as a way of dealing with it, to the amusement of those treating me.

But the treatment worked and I’m back to normal now - although I’m continuing to take tamoxifen tablets for the next few years which lowers the chance of the cancer coming back, my check-ups have been good so I feel like one of the lucky ones.

It would be excellent if more women with early breast cancer could now get this shorter radiotherapy – it would make it easier to manage to live a normal life during treatment. I’m glad I volunteered for this NIHR study – especially if it helps other ladies in the future.

Now I feel very happy and healthy. I love my hairdressing and wig business - which I set up to help ladies who had lost their hair through cancer treatment or other illness, just before my own diagnosis. I love Cilla my Jack Russell and of course my fiancé David and I’m very happy to be alive and well and ‘Colin’ free. 

Karen Davis, Participant on the FAST-Forward trial

Results from the FAST-Forward trial reveal women with early stage breast cancer can be treated with fewer but larger daily doses of radiotherapy delivered in one week compared to the current standard of three weeks. 

The study was funded by NIHR’s Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Programme and supported by the NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) and by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Cancer Research. It was led by researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

For more information on getting involved in research visit the Be Part of Research website.

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