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“I take my pill every day, and I get on with my life” – Christine’s breast cancer story


Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research have already been involved in the discovery and development of many targeted treatments that are helping cancer patients live longer and with a better quality of life. Now we’re taking our research a step further with the world’s first drug discovery programme to tackle the challenge of drug resistance. Christine O’Connell, who is living with advanced breast cancer, explains why it’s so important.

Posted on 13 December, 2019 by Christine O’Connell

I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2012, aged 40. I thought I’d pulled a muscle at the gym and mentioned it to my doctor. A few days later, I learned it was actually a 7cm tumour in my left breast. 

My diary for the next eight months was suddenly full and out of my control. I started chemotherapy on 3 January 2013, and then I had seven further cycles of chemo to look forward to, a mastectomy and radiotherapy. It was like a huge tornado had swept through my life. It was completely overwhelming, as well as being absolutely terrifying.

The treatment was just exhausting. I couldn’t think straight, I lost my hair, I lost my appetite… I felt and looked like a cancer patient, and eventually I had to stop working – it was really quite hard.

But after intensive treatment over the better part of a year, I gradually regained a normal life. I was fit and well, I developed a passion for cycling, and nearly five years after my diagnosis, I thought cancer was well and truly behind me. 

A new drug regime

Then in February 2018, I was cycling into London for a meeting. I remember coming through Mayfair, and the next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance on Oxford Street – with my bike –  heading to A&E. They told me I’d had a seizure and collapsed. A scan revealed a brain tumour, and it was confirmed that the breast cancer had returned and spread to my brain. 

I was in total shock – I had worried the cancer would come back, but I hadn’t really thought about how it would happen, and that I had a tumour in my brain defied belief. I had even had my annual check-up with my oncologist just a month or so before, and everything had seemed fine.

It was hard to accept how one minute you could be seemingly cancer-free, and the next be facing an incurable disease that could progress at any stage. I’ve since learned that in around 20-30% of women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, the disease later spreads beyond the breast to another part of the body. 

Following surgery and CyberKnife (a specialist type of radiotherapy), I needed a new drug treatment regime to keep my cancer at bay. I was lucky.

Palbociclib had been approved for use on the NHS just months before – the trials in the UK were led by the ICR and it hadn’t been in the clinic long. If I had been diagnosed much earlier, I wouldn’t have benefited from this drug. 

A new test could pick out women with advanced breast cancer who are likely to benefit from an exciting new targeted therapy for more than a year.

Read more

A much better quality of life

My cancer is currently stable. I used to have to spend half a day in the clinic, every two weeks, receiving chemotherapy. Now, thanks to the ICR’s efforts, I take my pill every day, three weeks on, one week off, and I get on with my life. I’m in the clinic just once a month to have my bloods checked. 

For me, the side effects of being on palbociclib are nowhere near as bad as chemo. I’ve been able to tolerate it well – a bit of fatigue and nausea, but it’s a much more manageable drug. It gives me a much better quality of life than I would have, and hopefully delays the need for a harsher form of treatment.

I have scans every three months to check the status of my disease.

I cycle 200-300km a week, which I could never have done had I been on conventional therapy. I’ve done the Etape du Tour twice (an amateur event that follows the route of one of the stages of the Tour de France), and completed the 365km ride from Manchester to London in a day, as well as a 630km ride from Amsterdam to Strasbourg.

Cycling is my escape - it’s my lifeline and it helps me combat the fatigue from treatment. 

We've lost many vital research hours to the coronavirus crisis but the need for our work continues to grow. Please help us kick-start our research to make up for lost time in discovering smarter, kinder and more effective cancer treatments, and to ensure cancer patients don't get left behind.

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Make cancer a manageable and treatable condition

Palbociclib allows me to live a good life with cancer – and I want all cancer patients to have this optimism for the future. It feels like the next frontier. We have all these great drugs, but cancer can develop resistance to them, and while patients are living longer, we are constantly looking for that next new drug.

Trying to make cancer a manageable and treatable condition, like a chronic disease, feels a realistic hope, an achievable goal for people like me with advanced disease, as opposed to curing cancer outright. The research is progressing at such a speed, and the emphasis on getting new treatments as fast as possible out of the lab and into patients is a great ambition.

I know at some point my current treatment will stop working, and my cancer will progress because it will have developed a resistance to the drug.  At that point, I hope there will be more new treatments in the pipeline that will buy me more time.

The idea of the ICR’s Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery bringing together experts of different disciplines to collaborate on innovative research to overcome cancer drug resistance is really important.

We need to stay one step ahead of cancer and it’s really hopeful, for patients like myself, to know that the ICR is working to make sure when one treatment fails, there’ll be something else available.

As I learn more about the complexities of cancer, my hope is that eventually we will be able to say cancer is a chronic disease that you can live with. 


breast cancer Patient stories
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