What looked like a cyst turned out to be something much worse. A mother’s tough journey in search of a treatment that might stick.
Let me introduce you to my Mum, a woman who is stronger and braver than anyone I know, and her incredible story of survival.
Her story began with a cyst on her ovary. After treating it for several years with pain killers, her doctors noticed the cyst was getting bigger. They decided the best course of action was to remove it. When they drew her blood, Mum’s CA 125 (a protein antigen produced by ovarian tumors) was slightly elevated at 77 (normal is less than 35), and within a week the level of protein hovered around 150. The surgeons decided to operate right away.
Doctors were not sure if the high CA score indicated cancer but there was another ominous sign hinting at her prognosis—a dark mass on the inside of the cyst that looked like dried blood. It turned out to be a malignant tumor.
Mum and her doctors thought there might be a genetic link as she was the fourth in her family to have either breast or ovarian cancer. Indeed, tests confirmed Mum carried the BRCA1 mutation—which accounts for 10% to 12% of ovarian and breast tumors—and the family was called in to be tested. The results confirmed that most of the females in the family carried the mutation, and some opted to reduce their risk of breast cancer by undergoing a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. This included Mum.
Following her chemotherapy, she was scheduled for a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Unfortunately, she developed a number of complications including the loss of an implant due to an infection.
Things kept getting worse. Two years after starting her chemotherapy, Mum’s CA 125 started rising again, and subsequent tests confirmed that the cancer had returned. Mum had to face yet another operation and more chemotherapy before being told she was free of the cancer but would need to be monitored.
When Mum’s cancer returned in 2014 for the third time my family was worried the doctors wouldn’t be able to do anything. She had already been through countless operations and two courses of chemotherapy, and this time the cancer was even bigger and attached to more organs. There were a lot of hoops to jump through before the surgeons agreed to operate. Mum was faced with the possibility of a stoma bag, as the cancer was attached to most of her bowel.
Sadly the operation was not the success we had hoped for. The cancer could not be cut out without endangering Mum’s life. Mum’s doctor, Professor Gourley, was still hopeful, though, detailing a treatment plan of chemotherapy and explaining that after chemo he would try to get my Mum a new drug that exploits tumor DNA repair pathway deficiencies to preferentially kill cancer cells. The first-in-class drug is for women who carry mutations in the tumor suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and who have exhausted more conventional treatments. Initially the drug was to extend the life of these patients and give them more time. However it was discovered that it also has the ability to reduce the cancer significantly. It also, coincidentally, was a drug the company I work for helped to develop.
Mum had to jump through more hoops to get the drug. Because the therapeutic had just been approved, public funding had not yet been secured and the UK government would not pay for it yet.
Professor Gourley refused to give up and the drug maker agreed to pay for my Mum to receive the drug on compassionate grounds as she was the perfect candidate. Mum now takes the oral medication twice a day and even though she will never truly be in remission, as long as she continues this medication she is cancer-free!
I am extremely proud to be part of a company and team who are saving people’s lives, however indirectly it might feel for me. The site I work for took part in testing this drug, and it saved my Mum’s life. I cannot say thank you enough.
Someday I hope to work on a test item that saves a person from your family.