The future of cancer treatment is weirder than you think
Welcome to the first paid-for Well Well Well newsletter, and thank you so much for subscribing!
I’ve explained my reasons for introducing a charge, but I would like to reiterate here that I will add for free anyone who wants to keep receiving these and doesn’t have the financial means to do so. If you know anyone who would benefit from these newsletters but can’t pay right now, do email me and I’ll make sure they get it, no questions asked. (You can also donate a subscription here.)
Anyway, it’s got me thinking about the cost of wellness and, in particular, cancer treatment. I have written previously about the dispiriting realisation that, if I’d had private healthcare, my treatment for breast cancer would have been different. An immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab has been found to reduce the risk of recurrence by 40% in patients with primary triple negative breast cancer (which I had). However, when I was diagnosed in January 2021, the drug had not been approved by NICE for use within the NHS - while it was being used in private clinics.
It breaks my heart that, had I been paying for private healthcare, I would have a 40% better chance of staying cancer free over the next few years. BUT I can’t change the past, and the good news is my treatment was successful and there is every chance I’ll stay cancer free anyway. (Don’t expect me to remain so calm and philosophical if I do get a recurrence though.)
But developments in immunotherapy are really exciting for the future, and cancer research in general is fascinatingly fast-moving. Since I’m writing a book on breast cancer at the moment, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many experts and gleaning the very latest knowledge. Thanks to this, I recently discovered something very interesting.
When I was going through chemotherapy, I had ‘distance reiki’, an NHS-provided complementary therapy that I also wrote about last year. One day, Reiki Paul, as I called him, asked if I’d had any trouble with my teeth. Well actually… two years earlier, I had cracked a tooth by biting down on a chilli seed. The crack could not be seen, even on an x-ray, but the pain was horrific as it became repeatedly infected. Since the tooth looked fine, no dentist wanted to pull it out. Instead, they gave me antibiotics for the infection, and prescribed a strengthening toothpaste.
Long story short: two months, four different dentists and three more cycles of antibiotics (the infection got so bad it spread to my sinus) later, I was crying in a dentist’s office, begging them to pull out the offending tooth. I worked at the Evening Standard at the time, and this meltdown came after being so off-my-face on hardcore painkillers that I turned up to work, talked gibberish in a meeting with George Osborne, then threw up in the office toilets. So the tooth was eventually extracted, the pain stopped and life went back to normal. Until two years later when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Interesting,” said Reiki Paul. “It hasn’t been clinically proven but, anecdotally, I believe there’s a connection.”
Riiiiight, I thought. And, even though it sounded like a bizarre theory, I told my oncologist. She literally laughed in my face. “No,” she said, with the expression of someone humouring a small child who thinks they might see a dinosaur in the zoo. “Your tooth infection did not cause breast cancer.”
Chastened, I didn’t give it another thought until last week when I interviewed Dr Niamh Buckley, one of the biologists leading groundbreaking research into targeted treatment for breast cancer at Queen’s University Belfast. The team there are hoping to develop a vaccine that will help the immune system recognise and destroy cancer cells with high levels of p53, a protein found in around 90% of triple negative breast cancer tumours, and in at least half of all cancer types. If they succeed, it will revolutionise treatment.
Towards the end of our conversation, something made me randomly mention the tooth infection story, despite expecting her to laugh me out of the Zoom. And she did laugh but, to my surprise, it was a laugh of recognition. “Funny you should mention that, because it’s actually something we’re working on,” she said, adding: “If you’d have asked me that a year ago, I would have thought you were mad.”
It turns out that breasts have their own microbiome(!) and the bacteria in your breasts tend to live in your mouth initially, before working their way down. She hastened to add that there would have to be “a perfect storm” of other events in the body to form a tumour and the dental infection would have been “a very tiny contribution.” So my oncologist was right that it did not “cause” the cancer.
Still, who’d have thought Reiki Paul was onto something? And what else will be discovered in the coming years that would sound crazy were it said today? I actually can’t wait to find out.
This week I’m…
Very into Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing healthier twists on comfort food classics, in River Cottage Good Comfort: Best-Loved Favourites Made Better for You
But also enjoying less healthy comfort food with the return of The Great British Bake Off tomorrow at 8pm on Channel 4
Delaying next week’s newsletter by a day, because it feels weird to email you about wellness on the day of the Queen’s funeral. Hope we all have a nice cathartic cry