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Woman struck twice by tonsil cancer celebrates as tumour shrinks in half

Jeanette Joyce, who has had tonsil cancer twice, is having regular immunotherapy treatment (Christie NHS Foundation Trust/PA)
Jeanette Joyce, who has had tonsil cancer twice, is having regular immunotherapy treatment (Christie NHS Foundation Trust/PA)

A woman struck twice by tonsil cancer is celebrating after seeing her tumour shrink in half.

Jeanette Joyce, 64, from Northwich in Cheshire, was diagnosed with cancer in her right tonsil and soft palate (roof of the mouth) during the pandemic in May 2021.

She endured 33 doses of radiotherapy and two cycles of chemotherapy and was eventually given the all-clear in the July.

But, devastatingly, just three days after a 12-month check-up to ensure all was well, she was diagnosed with a completely unrelated second tumour in her left tonsil.

Mrs Joyce’s initial symptoms of cancer were an ongoing runny nose and a sore throat.

She told the PA news agency: “I thought I had hayfever, but it was during lockdown and I couldn’t get an appointment at the doctors’.

“When I did see the doctor, he thought it was rhinitis and prescribed some nasal sprays.

“I had two lots of those but, when it didn’t clear up, then they sent me to my local hospital.

“There, I had a biopsy and it came back as cancer in my right tonsil. It was a shock, I was completely stunned.”

Mrs Joyce, who is married to Dave, 67, underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy and was delighted to ring the bell to signal the end of treatment.

But during a 12-month check-up, a doctor at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust cancer hospital in Manchester noticed a thickening on one side in her throat.

He wrote a report for her local hospital, where she was due to have a check-up, and staff carried out a biopsy.

Mrs Joyce was then given the awful news that the cancer was now in the other tonsil and was not curable.

The disease was also found in three other places in her palate and Mrs Joyce was told palliative (end of life) care was the only option.

She said: “I was so shocked, stunned and in disbelief. It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience when I was being told they couldn’t do anything more for me.

“It felt like I was staring into my own coffin. I even started planning the music for my funeral.”

Jeanette Joyce and her husband Dave (Christie NHS Foundation Trust/PA)

However, unwilling to accept her fate, Mrs Joyce asked to be referred to the Christie where doctors said she was eligible for a phase II clinical trial.

She agreed to take part in research at the National Institute for Health and Care Research Manchester Clinical Research Facility at the Christie and started her first treatment on December 7, 2022.

This treatment involves having an immunotherapy drug intravenously every six weeks, together with an injection of a protein into her leg every three weeks.

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment which helps the immune system recognise cancer and kill it. The clinical trial is testing this new immunotherapy combination for head and neck cancers.

Mrs Joyce is delighted after scans showed the tumour has now shrunk to half its size in eight months.

She said: “Everything is going in the right direction at the moment.

“When I was told it was incurable, I was completely floored. But I’ve always been incredibly positive, and the trial means the tumour is shrinking.”

Day-to-day, Mrs Joyce enjoys spending time with her husband and goes on daily walks with her neighbour, who has dementia.

“My husband and I like cooking and things like that,” she added. “We also like reading.”

As for whether she would recommend trying new treatment combinations, she said: “The clinical trial was the only thing left for me, so I thought, why not give it a go?  I had nothing to lose.

“This has been a 100% positive experience for me. I’ve not experienced any side-effects and I’m able to live life to the full. I can even eat anything I like, and that includes tucking into a nice juicy steak.

“I’d encourage anyone to absolutely go for it if you’re offered the chance to take part in research.  Since being on the trial, I haven’t looked back.”

Dr Robert Metcalf, consultant oncologist at the Christie said: “Jeanette is doing very well on this clinical trial and experiencing no side-effects, which is fantastic for her.

“We have seen her tumour reduced to half the size in eight months. We’re on the right trajectory so something’s working, so we’re going to stick with this treatment and see where we get to.”

He continued: “This trial has shown some promising results with half the patients responding well.

“It’s still early days, but we’re hopeful this drug combination could become a standard treatment for some patients with head and neck cancer in the future.

“We are certainly seeing immunotherapy drugs being used more routinely for head and neck cancers which is good news for patients as they are better tolerated, and less likely to result in long-term side effects.”

In total, 154 patients with a type of head and neck cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) that has returned, or spread to other parts of the body, are being recruited onto the clinical trial.

Head and neck cancer is a relatively uncommon type of cancer, with just 12,400 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year.