Video: ICR patient advocate, Debbie Keynes, talks about her experience of being diagnosed with melanoma and subsequent treatment with cancer drug dabrafenib.
Looking back now, I don’t remember a great deal about the day I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma except that I felt I was being treated like I was about to die at any moment.
It was April 2016 and I was initially given the news by my GP, following a biopsy result consultation. The following day I had to meet with a dermatologist, surgeons and skin cancer nurses at my local hospital.
Appointments were then made to go to Southampton General Hospital and I was handed a bunch of leaflets on ‘how to cope with your cancer diagnosis’, melanoma and skin cancer.
Once I got home, I chucked all of the leaflets into the corner of the room, behind the sofa, vowing that I would never read them. I couldn’t even look at the words cancer, malignant or melanoma.
Although I am a trained nurse, I didn’t know a great deal about melanoma, but I did know that it wasn’t good.
Learning to cope
“Process the information” was the best advice someone gave me in early diagnosis. “Give yourself time to take information in.” Melanoma is often described as the rollercoaster of cancers, simply because it changes and goes up and down, very quickly and suddenly.
So processing I began to do, a lot, and after a while I read those leaflets, and possibly everything I could find on my diagnosis. I became interested and slightly obsessed with treatment, research, statistics and other patients’ stories. I found that knowledge was giving me strength to cope.
That interest is why, three years later, I found myself responding to an invitation to take a tour and meet some of the team at The Institute of Cancer Research labs in Sutton.
I was met by Lydia Brain, (former) Cancer Stories Officer at the ICR. I had met Lydia previously after she initially, in 2018, had approached the Facebook support group, Melanomamates, for patients willing to take part in a video and interview and share their stories.
I volunteered and then spent a sunny day with Lydia and a camera crew on the beach in Southsea. The video is now available on their website, alongside other cancer patient videos.
Meeting Dr Rossanese
Over a quick lunch in the ICR’s canteen, Lydia ran through the programme which she had put together for my visit, which was to begin in the science labs and a meeting with Dr Olivia Rossanese, Head of Biology in the Division of Cancer Therapeutics, where the ICR discovers new cancer drugs.
Olivia was a member of the discovery team for the drug dabrafenib and played a role in making sure another skin cancer drug, the MEK inhibitor trametinib, was licensed for use.
I have been successfully treated with dabrafenib and trametinib so to meet with Olivia was not only hugely interesting but also inspirational as she chatted warmly about current and future developments.
Olivia then introduced me to other members of the drug discovery team – Dalia, Yvette and Rosemary who took me for a tour.
After donning a white lab coat and goggles, I was led around some of the ICR labs. I was able to see where molecules are examined in hundreds of different ways for future treatments, how drugs are combined in many ways and how they are tested, all in different formulas.
I was shown sophisticated and very clever machinery, including robotics, all speeding up the research carried out.
I was able to look down a microscope at tumour cells from breast cancer and hear about current research around new treatments.
Bizarrely, whilst being shown around, I totally forgot that I was a cancer patient. I had reverted to my curious questioning mind of my nursing background.
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Advanced diagnostics will help patients
After a break, and a catch up with Lydia, we made our way to one of the seminar rooms for a Skype meeting with a researcher at the ICR’s other site in Chelsea. Along the way Lydia pointed out a timeline which is displayed on the walls running from 1900 to the present day.
It highlights all of the major developments which the ICR has been responsible for. These include discovering the carcinogens in cigarette smoke, early discoveries of chemotherapy drugs, learning how cells become cancerous, developing advanced radiotherapy techniques, transforming prostate cancer treatment, and characterising the BRAF gene in malignant melanoma.
The work with the BRAF gene in melanoma was, of course, of most interest to me and I was able to read how the ICR played a large role in the understanding of the BRAF gene, and identified it as a possible drug target.
I was prescribed these drugs for 17 months for tumours in my liver, skin pigmentation and lumps on my scalp, all of which have now disappeared.
The Skype chat was with Professor Jeff Bamber, who is a team leader in the Division of Radiotherapy and Imaging, specialising in ultrasound and optical imaging. Jeff explained that he has developed a piece of scanning equipment, for eventual use in GP surgeries for checking moles on patients and deciding which look to be malignant.
He hopes this piece of equipment will save time, money, surgery and extreme worry and anxiety, if put into practice.
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Speeding up diagnosis for patients
I was sent away three times by my doctor before having a biopsy taken from my scalp. In this time, I had developed stage three melanoma, which then needed three major operations, and then went to stage four.
With Jeff’s new scanner in place, it could speed up diagnosis for patients, surgery may not be needed so much and enable GPs to be better equipped to check suspicious moles.
I came away from my visit buzzing with information, totally inspired by the research that is constantly taking place, and reassured that this is all continuing and consistently improving treatments, diagnostics and indeed the quality of life for cancer patients.
I would like to thank all involved with meeting with me on this visit, and of course also to Lydia for arranging it and being with me throughout the day.
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