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Clinical trial found my cancer and saved my life - retired Cambridge scientist

By Gemma Gardner

Liz Chipchase feels “incredibly lucky” to be spending Christmas with her family after a clinical trial saved her life.

The retired scientist, from Cambridge, felt fit and healthy when she signed up for the trial only for doctors to find a cancerous tumour growing in her throat.

“It was a bit of a body blow when you walk into a room and expect to see one person and there’s four or five of them looking at you and one of them says that you’ve got cancer,” Liz told Cambridge Independent.

The 70-year-old, who had a history of indigestion and acid reflux, was contacted by her GP practice about the clinical trial, called BEST3, which is studying the effectiveness of the Cytosponge.

“I was curious about it and how it worked,” she said. “It was a very simple test and I didn’t have to make an appointment or go to a clinic.”

The Cytosponge, or ‘pill on a string’, collects cells from the food pipe, which is also called the oesophagus. The cells then undergo molecular testing in the lab. These tests look for signs of a condition called Barrett's oesophagus, which in some cases can develop into cancer.

MHewlett (6101589)
MHewlett (6101589)

Liz was certain she would be a control subject but abnormalities were discovered and she was referred for further tests.

“I was curious having never heard of Barrett's oesophagus and was just interested in the technique. My reflux symptoms had got no worse over recent years and I felt fine so after the test I went home and forgot all about it. It was very, very simple. Compared to an endoscopy, it's nothing.”

But not only did Liz have Barrett's oesophagus, she also had cancer. What’s more, the tumour was close to spreading.

“I was very lucky,” she said. “If I hadn't taken the test, I honestly believe that I would still be walking around with cancer. The survival rate for oesophageal cancer isn't good, so the fact I am clear of cancer is fantastic.

“If I hadn't gone on the trial, I wouldn't have known I'd got cancer until I had my next endoscopy in a year's time. I wouldn’t have known until it had got really quite advanced so that I couldn’t swallow properly or until I had some really major symptoms.”

Liz is now looking ahead to 2019 and a quiet Christmas with her husband Paul and son William.

"This experience has changed me,” she said. “I smile a lot more now! Since retiring, I've taken up pottery fairly seriously and I am going to be ambitious and make bigger pieces. I also want to get out and do some distance walking. I feel very lucky to be able to make these plans."

She added: “I will be spending time with my son and my husband (over the festive period). I think a quiet Christmas will actually be in order this year.”

Cancer Research UK is supporting the trial and also supported the development of the Cytosponge and molecular test. Now Liz is backing the charity's 'Right Now' campaign to raise awareness of the importance of research.

The campaign also aims to show how actions taken right now can make a real tangible difference in helping more people survive.

Liz, who read Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, also hopes to draw attention to the impact cancer research has had on her life.

Liz said: "It's near miraculous to me. If my GP hadn't been selected and got me on a good day when I thought the trial sounded interesting, I don't know what would have happened. It's a chain of events that makes me feel so very lucky. I'm so grateful to everyone involved. I believe this trial saved my life.

The idea for the Cytosponge began over 10 years ago with Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and her team at the University of Cambridge.

With support from Cancer Research UK, the MRC Cancer Unit, the Cambridge University Hospitals Trust and Queen Mary University of London, they developed the ingenious 'sponge on a string' pill method of collecting the cells and a reliable laboratory test to analyse them.

To help support life-saving research, visit Cancer Research UK.

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