So yesterday we journeyed into London again to receive my first dose of the cancer vaccine. Train followed by taxi took us to The London Clinic Cancer Centre – a very posh independently owned hospital right in the centre of London.
Upon entering the building Sally and I finally felt like our rightful status had been recognised. This was the kind of place we belonged – light, spacious, airy, big white leather sofas, porters who would hail a cab for you in case you were too lazy or important to lift your own arm (yes, we did take advantage of this service).
As I registered at the front desk I noticed a little sign…
“All patients receiving oncology treatment must submit a deposit of £30,000”.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the full amount right there and then (having already broken into my last £30,000 to pay for the train and taxi). But I didn’t need to leave a deposit – I have been granted charitable funding via The London Clinic, and therefore receive the treatment free of charge. We’re not really sure how or why I have been awarded this funding – our consultant seems to have handled that side of things, all I did was sign a form that I didn’t read properly. So I guess we owe him a big thank you.
Once we had finished registration we took the lifts up to the ward. When I say ‘ward’, it was not like any other hospital ward I have been in – again, light, spacious, airy, and spotlessly clean and tidy. I was shown to an enormous futuristic looking white chair, where we were served mineral water by a waitress.
After a bit of a wait a doctor came along with the vaccination injection. The actual administration of the vaccine was very quick and simple, just a small painless injection into the upper arm. We waited around for a little while in case I had some kind of adverse reaction, before starting the journey home.
We were told the vaccine was generally well tolerated, with the most frequent side effects being irritation around the injection site, and perhaps experiencing flu-like symptoms in the day or two after the injection. Well so far I’ve not noticed any adverse effects, so will hopefully continue to tolerate it well.
It’s nice when treatments are so well tolerated, as it removes all the ‘treatment vs quality of life’ discussions and value judgements. You can just go for it and hope it works, but feel safe in the knowledge that you haven’t lost much if it doesn’t.
So that’s about it for my vaccine experience. I go back in two weeks for my second dose, and at some point after that I’ll have a scan to see how all these treatments are doing.
But rather than finish there I thought I’d write a bit about the vaccine itself, as a cancer ‘vaccine’ is probably an unfamiliar concept to many people (it was to me up until a couple of months ago). I will mostly be plagiarising this next section from the vaccine leaflet we were given… mostly… (yes, it’s Newt from Aliens again).
Vaccination is a form of immunotherapy. Generally the purpose of vaccination is to elicit an immune response where none previously existed. Taking flu for example – put simplistically (because my understanding is simplistic!) a small amount of the flu virus (perhaps weakened or deactivated) is injected into the patient. The patient’s immune system then forms antibodies to be able to fight off that virus. Should the patient encounter the virus in future, their immune system already has the antibodies required to fight off the virus and prevent the patient getting ill.
This is where the idea of a cancer vaccine sounds strange – the idea of injecting someone with cancer cells. Well fortunately the vaccine doesn’t actually contain cancer cells, instead containing a heat-killed bacteria.
In the mid-nineteenth century it was noted by a number of doctors that infection with certain bacterial organisms seemed to have a beneficial effect on the treatment of certain cancers. Doctors such as William Coley used combinations of bacteria strains (known as Coley’s toxins) injected directly into tumours to treat cancers. During studies it was found that the BCG vaccine was found to have positive effects on certain patients with lung cancer and malignant melanoma. However, these approaches were replaced with the advent of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Recently there seems to have been a renewal of interest in the immunotherapy approach (there was an article in the Telegraph or Times recently about Coley’s toxins, in which our consultant was quoted). The theory is that many diseases and cancers are characterised by an imbalance or malfunction in the immune system, allowing cancer cells not only to survive, but to grow unchecked. Melanoma in particular is thought to have a large immune component – which would make sense, given that we already know that my immune system is a bit screwy, hence my ulcerative colitis.
The theory is that the vaccine can help to restore this imbalance in the immune system, that it might restore the body’s ability to have an appropriate response in conditions where it has been compromised, such as cancer. In effect we hope that the vaccine will boost the immune system, and direct it towards attacking the cancer.
Initial studies have shown that the vaccine may have therapeutic benefits and has the potential to complement existing and emerging therapies. It is believed that in some cases it may be possible to induce a state of equilibrium with the cancer so that a patient lives with the disease, while effectively controlling it.
So there we go, that’s my ‘vaccine summary’. Obviously it’s early days in terms of the research, but it has apparently shown very promising results in early trials, and is in further trials now. So it’s very exciting to be receiving this treatment, and we are lucky in that I haven’t had to sign up to a trial to get it. Again, I’m not really sure how or why I am in this fortunate position, it’s down to our consultant again – but I’m certainly not complaining!
That’s it for now – I will keep you updated with any further news.