Health: Plea to GPs over bone cancer diagnoses

Dr Elizabeth Roundhill, with Sue Burchill, Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Adolescent Cancer Research.
Dr Elizabeth Roundhill, with Sue Burchill, Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Adolescent Cancer Research.
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It’s a disease for which survival rates haven’t improved for 20 years. Katie Baldwin reports on the bone cancer battle.

She’s beaten the odds not once, but twice. And though Ruth Pearcey had to sacrifice her leg to beat bone cancer, she remains committed to reaching her goals.

The 21-year-old is also determined to ensure others affected by the rare but potentially devastating disease are diagnosed quickly enough.

Ruth, from Morley, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma – a rare bone cancer – at the age of 12.

She had been to her GP several times, initially being prescribed antibiotics as she was thought to have an infection in her leg.

“It was only because my mum pushed for an X-ray that it was picked up when it was,” she said.

At the X-ray, Ruth said it was clear that something was seriously wrong and she was later given the news that it was cancer.

That led to a gruelling programme of treatment, including intensive chemotherapy, a major operation and yet more chemotherapy.

“The chemotherapy is the strongest you can have” she said.

“The first time I had kidney failure and went into intensive care, and was given 24 hours to live.

“I said goodbye to my family. I was very lucky to survive that.”

Ruth had pioneering surgery at specialist centre the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, operated on by surgeon Robert Grimer and under the care of top Ewing’s sarcoma expert Prof Ian Lewis.

She was only the fifth patient to undergo the operation, which involved techniques including removing the affected bone and treating it with radiation.

After the operation and treatment, Ruth embarked on her recovery.

She had almost reached the end of the crucial two year-milestone, as well as learning to walk again, when she and her family were told the cancer had returned.

“The doctors said you don’t survive Ewing’s once, let alone twice,” she said.

“They said ‘it’s going to be very brutal’.

“But my mum said ‘she will fight this until her last breath’ and I’m glad she did because I’m still here, against all the odds.

“At the time I had a 5 per cent chance of survival – but I’m still here.”

However she had a difficult decision to take, as medics said amputating the affected leg would increase her chances of survival.

That operation took place when she was 15: “I had lost my leg, but not my life,” she said.

She got a prosthetic leg and learned to walk again using it, but in recent years has been struck by chronic pain which has affected her mobility.

After specialist treatment, she’s now determined to return to college and eventually go to university.

“I want to get my PHD and become a p sychologist, hopefully working on an oncology ward,” she added.

Ruth is also passionate about a new campaign by the Leeds-based Bone Cancer Research Trust (BCRT) to make GPs more aware of the symptoms of the illness.

“GPs are not looking for it because they think it’s unlikely,” she said.

The charity has now created a specialist training programme for GPs.

BCRT chief executive office Julie Harrington said: “Symptoms can often be mistaken for growing pains, sporting injuries or other common conditions, which means it can take up to 18 months before primary bone cancer is diagnosed. We realise doctors may only see one or two cases in their career, which is why we want to support them in early diagnosis and help patients start treatment as soon as possible.”

The charity also funds research into Ewing’s sarcoma, with supporters seeing the team at work in the Children’s Cancer Research Lab at St James’s Hospital, at the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology in the Leeds University School of Medicine.

BCRT trustee Sarah Dawson, whose son Alex died of osteosarcoma aged 16, said: “It’s absolutely crucial to find out why it happened and what we can do to find out how to stop it.

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what Al went through.”

CHARITY CAMPAIGN

The Saving Life and Limb campaign has been launched during Bone Cancer Awareness Week.

Primary bone cancer symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions, so BCRT has produced an action pack for anyone worried. BCRT CEO Julie Harrington said: “Of the 600 diagnosed every year in the UK and Ireland, only just over half will survive for five years.

“It’s simple – the earlier the diagnosis, the better chances of treatment and survival.”

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