“I call it a silent killer because it doesn’t show up until it’s far too advanced. But we’ve now got the technology to diagnose it early. People don’t have to die anymore.”
Clinical support worker Carol Bisby was among the first people to start working on the new Leeds Lung Health Check unit when it was first introduced in November 2018.
Having worked for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust for more than 20 years, she was keen to be a part of the pioneering lung screening trial funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research.
Now, having had a lung health check herself, Carol is urging others to take advantage of the service when invited.
“A couple of people in my family had died from lung cancer and my best friend was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer,” Carol, 64, explains. “That’s why I chose to work at the Leeds Lung Health Check. I had a real passion for it.”
The trial is testing whether lung screening can be introduced in community settings. People aged 55-80 who smoke or used to smoke are invited to take part by their GP. They are given a special type of x-ray called a screening CT scan. This is designed to find cancers at the earliest possible stage, helping people get treatment before they experience any symptoms.
Appointments take place on a mobile unit that travels to locations across Leeds such as supermarket and shopping centre car parks, making it easier for people to take part.
“From day one, I’ve absolutely loved working on the unit. I enjoy the interaction, helping to put those attending at ease and explaining what the trial is all about. It’s so satisfying, I feel like we’re really making a difference.”
By February 2020, thousands of scans had taken place on the unit and more than 80 cancers had been diagnosed. But the trial was paused while the NHS focused on providing frontline care for Covid-19 patients during the coronavirus pandemic. Due to underlying health conditions, Carol began shielding at home to protect herself from the virus.
Although the trial was back up and running by July with Covid-secure measures in place, Carol continued to follow advice to shield.
It was during this time that Carol received a letter from the Leeds Lung Health Check inviting her to book her own appointment for a scan.
“I’d been shielding for a good four and a half months so I’d not worked on the unit for a long time,” Carol said: “I always knew there was a chance that I would be invited for a lung health check. I live in Leeds and nearly all the GP practices are taking part in the programme. I used to be a smoker, and I had been suffering from breathlessness.
“Luckily, they decided I was eligible to take part and I was invited to book an appointment. I went along not knowing how my colleagues were working through Covid-19. It was a shock when I arrived because the way we work had completely changed.”
To reopen the trial, the Leeds Lung Health Check team had put lots of measures in place to ensure the safety of both staff and attendees, including wearing full personal protective equipment and introducing temperature checks and hand sanitiser. They had also changed their appointment schedule to minimise the number of people on the unit at the same time.
Carol said: “I wasn’t treated any differently to anyone else who comes through the doors. They made me feel so safe; safer than I did going into the supermarket. When I lay down on the scanner, I did wonder if anything might show up. It suddenly became very real for me.
“It made me realise what everyone else goes through when they come for a scan. It’s very daunting. I can now understand how people feel going into that situation.”
Thankfully, Carol’s scan came back clear, but the experience has made her more aware of her health. She is now exercising more and watching what she eats. She’s also enjoying playing with her nine grandchildren, something she had previously avoided as it made her more breathless than usual.
“The scan did give me peace of mind,” Carol explained. “But it also made me realise that I need to look after myself more. I can’t take away the fact that I used to be a smoker, even though I quit years ago. I can’t erase the past, but I now have an opportunity to make my future better.”
Carol recently returned to her work on the unit. She is now keen to share her experience with other patients to help reassure them as they have their scan.
Carol added: “I’ve been getting to grips with all the new procedures we have in place. It’s a lot more intense from that point of view, but I’m really glad to be back. After being on both sides, I can now talk people through what is going to happen and see if I can make them feel a bit safer.