'If left unchecked, it would have killed me' - patients thank Sheffield cancer centre for 50 years of care

Staff who care for women with rare tumours developed during or after pregnancy have marked 50 years of care at a specialist centre in Sheffield.
Li Li spent the first five months of her newborn's life in hospitalLi Li spent the first five months of her newborn's life in hospital
Li Li spent the first five months of her newborn's life in hospital

Before the centre opened in 1973 to treat a group of conditions where tumours grow from the tissue formed during pregnancy, women were dying.

But now thanks to the Sheffield Gestational Trophoblastic Disease Centre and the specialist care it offers women, gestational trophoblastic disease is now over 95 per cent curable. The centre, which offers new treatments pioneered there, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

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Rachel Hunter, 39, found out she had developed the disease during a pregnancy scan in 2020. 

She said: "The ultrasound was a complete mess, it looked like a blizzard or a snowstorm, I was told they would have to operate and sadly the pregnancy wasn’t viable."

The next day, Rachel had a procedure to remove the abnormal tissue which had formed during the early stages of her pregnancy. 

Rachel Hunter got the all-clear in July 2020.Rachel Hunter got the all-clear in July 2020.
Rachel Hunter got the all-clear in July 2020.

Detailed investigations in the following months confirmed a cancerous 2cm tumour was growing.

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Rachel said: "It was hard coming to terms with a pregnancy working against you. I thought I was growing a life, but it turned out to be a tumour. If left unchecked, it would have killed me."

After five months of treatment at the centre, based at Weston Park Cancer Centre, she was given the all-clear.

"Everyone at Weston Park was so compassionate, everything they did for me, it meant the world. It would have been a much harder journey without them," she said.

The centre, which is one of only two trophoblastic specialist centres in the country, has received international recognition for its care. 

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Many women have to undergo months of chemotherapy at the centre directly following birth or loss of a pregnancy. Li Li was one of these women, who spent the first five months of her newborn's life in the confines of the hospital.

Li Li with her newborn, in October 2022.Li Li with her newborn, in October 2022.
Li Li with her newborn, in October 2022.

The 43-year-old academic was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, which affects one in 50,000 pregnancies, six days after giving birth in October 2022.

She said: "When I heard the word ‘cancer’ it was like boom. I was terrified. I had a newborn baby. How could I have cancer? I asked the doctors, ‘please help me, please save my life.'"

After a CT scan found abnormalities in her womb, liver and lungs, she was transferred to Weston Park Cancer Centre weak and unable to breathe, and spent months receiving treatment miles away from her home in Sunderland.

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In February, her treatment became less intense, and she was able to spend time with her new family.

Li Li, fully recovered, and her family.Li Li, fully recovered, and her family.
Li Li, fully recovered, and her family.

"The staff at Weston Park were so brilliant and professional, I can’t thank the doctors and nurses in Sheffield enough, they gave me my life and saved me with my family," she said.

Kam Singh, Nurse Consultant at the Sheffield Gestational Trophoblastic Centre, said: "It's such an emotive and horrendous disease, and there are lots of issues and uncertainty about what the future holds. Our service aims to make our patients’ journey as easy and bearable as possible."

New immunotherapy treatments, research into predicting which patients will respond to which treatments, and data gathering from patients on their experience of care, are all ongoing at the centre.

Staff caring for women diagnosed with a rare group of tumours that develop during the womb during or following pregnancy have marked 50 years of the Sheffield Gestational Trophoblastic Disease Centre.Staff caring for women diagnosed with a rare group of tumours that develop during the womb during or following pregnancy have marked 50 years of the Sheffield Gestational Trophoblastic Disease Centre.
Staff caring for women diagnosed with a rare group of tumours that develop during the womb during or following pregnancy have marked 50 years of the Sheffield Gestational Trophoblastic Disease Centre.
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Dr Matt Winter, consultant medical oncologist and director of the specialist centre, said: "Gestational trophoblastic disease is a really rare disease which most people have never heard of. 

"We are incredibly proud of what has been achieved over the last 50 years and our role as the only centre in the north of England caring for patients with this devastating group of conditions. 

"Our services and research are recognised internationally as world-leading so it is fantastic that this centre is on the doorstep for the local population.!