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Highlands nurse leading the way in hope of helping those with secondary breast cancer in Scotland

By Gregor White

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PTA nurses Vivienne Wilson, Catherine Graham and Melanie Tolson.
PTA nurses Vivienne Wilson, Catherine Graham and Melanie Tolson.

A HIGHLANDS nurse is at the forefront of a new service for secondary breast cancer patients in Scotland.

The Patient Trials Advocate service, (PTA) is the first of its kind in the UK, and aims to bring fresh hope to those with the incurable cancer.

It does this by introducing them to clinical trials which can help to improve outcomes and extend life.

Catherine Graham, senior research nurse, for the Cancer Clinical Trials at the Department of Clinical Oncology at Raigmore Hospital, is one of the specialist nurses spearheading the initiative.

The scheme was developed by charity Make 2nds Count which campaigns to raise awareness of, and fund research into, secondary breast cancer.

The disease kills 1000 women in the UK each month but remains largely unknown.

Also known as metastatic, advanced or stage four breast cancer, it is a cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body and can be treated but not cured.

On average there are around 35,000 patients in the UK currently living with this form of the disease.

There is evidence that early access to innovative new treatment options can improve the outcomes of men and women with secondary breast cancer and the new bespoke service sees specialist nurses support patients and link them up with clinical trials.

The PTA scheme covers Scotland in its entirety through nurses based in the Highlands, the Borders and Edinburgh. Patients have an initial one-to-one, hour-long phone consultation with one of the nurses who can advise about clinical trials and answer any queries, search for suitable trials and support patients in discussing them with their clinician.

Catherine said: “To be part of this innovative service for the Highlands and the whole of Scotland is very exciting. This is really tailored to the needs of the individual.

“Discussing and considering being in a trial not only helps the person holding the consultation, but potentially improves future treatment for others too.”

“We know that the majority of secondary breast cancer patients have never had a conversation with their clinician about clinical trials.

“Expanding the service to the whole of Scotland is going to make a real difference for patients all over, and it will hopefully offer not only knowledge, but also hope and confidence, and the chance to discuss potential treatments and innovative options, and that’s so important for patients.”

Since the service piloted last year more than 100 patients have been supported.

Of those, 100 pre cent backed the initiative and 95 per cent said they would talk to their clinician about the possibility of accessing clinical trials.

One of those who knows only too well the benefits of a clinical trial is Edinburgh mum-of-four Lesley Stephen. Diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer out of the blue in 2014, the disease had already spread to her lungs, liver and bones.

Two years later she was told she had run out of treatment options.

But she subsequently got the chance to take part in a clinical trial and is still living with the disease six years later.

She says: “I had undergone 18 months of treatment, which was unsuccessful, when I heard of a friend who was taking part in a clinical trial. That inspired me and gave me hope that there just might be another option.

“I researched potential trials myself, which was not easy, and I realised that there was a lack of awareness. But because of the trial I took part in, I have had another six years of life I never expected to have. This just shows why the patient advocacy service is so important. People need to know that there perhaps, is another possibility out there for them.”

Make 2nds Count was founded by mum Lisa Fleming (38) of Edinburgh, who had no previous breast cancer diagnosis, warning signs or lump when she was told she had secondary breast cancer.

Her aim is to support patients and families, educate and raise funds for research into the disease.

So far, the charity has raised more than £1million to help those in need.

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