Patient perspective: early diagnosis saved my life
Eric Byrne is a lucky man. Seven years ago he had a persistent cough that he couldn’t shake. A busy college lecturer, Eric expected it to clear up by itself – but it did not.
His daughter suggested he go to the doctor but Eric was reluctant. “I didn’t want to go running to doctor with a silly little cough but my daughter made an appointment for me – and I’m very grateful to her” he says.
After initially suspecting that Eric may have been suffering from an infection, a doctor sent him for a chest x-ray. The results were a shock: “The doctor said my upper right lung had collapsed and that lung cancer was a possibility.”
A string of follow-up tests ensued. He had a CT scan and “an unpleasant procedure called a bronchoscopy”: a thin tube was put down Eric’s throat and a small blade was used to take a tissue sample from the tumour in his lung. “I could feel them doing it. At the end they flood your lung with water to flush it out. The whole procedure was only 10 minutes but it was the longest 10 minutes of my life,” he recalls.
The tissue sample was used to determine whether the tumour was cancerous. Eric went to his doctor for the results and found himself sitting opposite a grim-faced general practitioner. “I felt like he should have worn a black cap like a judge passing a death sentence,” says Eric. “He looked at me very soberly, told me they had found some cancerous cells and introduced me to lung cancer.”
A PET scan – where radioactive dye is injected into the body to look for disease – showed that the tumour had grown, causing his lung to collapse. The cancer had also spread to some lymph nodes.
But it was not all bad news. Eric had been diagnosed quite early and, after four rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, it was surgically removed.
But there was another twist in Eric’s story. During a CT scan to check his lung cancer, doctors discovered a worrying lump in his bowel – completely unrelated to the tumour in his lung. This, his doctor told him, would have gone undetected until it was too late, had it not been picked up by chance during the lung cancer scan.
“I sometimes joke that lung cancer saved my life!” Eric says exuberantly.
Now, seven years later, he is a patient advocate for The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, a lung cancer charity, and has recently completed a seven-week fund-raising tour in the US.
Best of all, he’s back at work. “I walked into a class on my first day back and the students burst into a spontaneous round of applause. It was a lovely moment.”
Regine Deniel Ihlen was one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, received prompt treatment, and was given the all clear in 2007. Today she is a lung cancer survivor, working with Lung Cancer Europe to raise awareness of the disease in order to support other people living with the disease.
She recalls her experience of tissue biopsies which helped to diagnose her cancer and aided her doctors’ treatment decisions. “Tissue biopsy is never pleasant,” says Regine. “For me, it was not too bad but other patients were very afraid.”
Patients often undergo several biopsies to monitor the development of the cancer. This helps health professionals to see whether the tumour has responded to treatment and highlights any changes that might have occurred.
“I was very fortunate,” Regine says. “Doctors diagnosed the tumour early using a tissue biopsy. It was still in an early stage and had not spread. I had surgery and all cancerous cells were removed.”