Jackie Head has conquered Everest, trained in the Arctic, and drags five-stone tyres around for fun – but nothing could prepare her for learning she had lung cancer.
Jackie Head, 56 from Chalkwell, Southend-on-Sea, owes her life to lung screening. She is now urging others to have their lungs checked.
When Jackie received an invitation for a lung health check at the end of 2022, she paused. Describing herself as an extremely fit 56-year-old who has climbed Everest base camp, polar trained in the Arctic and drags 5-stone tyres as part of her endurance training, Jackie didn’t think lung cancer was something she needed to worry about.
However, Jackie lost her father to lung cancer and her mother is also living with the disease, so Jackie realised it was best to check.
Fast forward to January and Jackie was diagnosed with stage one lung cancer. She is now on a mission with Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation to make sure everyone invited has their lungs checked – even if they feel well.
“My lungs are my strength,” said Jackie. “I climb under altitude so I never thought I would get lung cancer, or if I did, I would at least feel something. But I had zero symptoms. It was only because of my family history that I went for the check in the first place.
“I went to the appointment full of confidence, overconfident in fact. It was just before Christmas so I wished all the nurses a Merry Christmas, safe in the presumption that I wouldn’t see them again. But then, a few days later I received a call to say they’ve found two abnormalities.”
What Jackie’s story shows is you can feel well and still have lung cancer, and in Jackie’s extraordinary case – you can climb mountains and still have lung cancer.Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation
Further tests confirmed Jackie’s diagnosis – stage 1a non-small cell lung cancer. Despite this, Jackie carried on with her plans; she was due to be going to the Arctic Ice Festival in Norway.
“I decided to still go to the Ice Festival,” Jackie continues. “I was there for 10 days, returning home on 26th February. On 2nd March, I was in hospital having a VATS lobectomy and three weeks later was told, I didn’t need any further treatment.
“It’s been a complete whirlwind. I don’t think I ever really had time for the reality to sink in, and now I am cancer free. Six weeks after my surgery, I was back at work, taking the busy tube into central London. Nine weeks post op, I’m back doing 50k on my bike and my lungs feel totally normal. Just last weekend, I completed the London2Brighton 100k!
I feel so incredibly lucky and believe I now have a responsibility to share my experience to encourage others to go for their lung health check.Jackie had no symptoms when she was diagnosed
“I feel I have a very niche story. I don’t fit what many people would perceive to be the lung cancer stereotype, so I am determined to help Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation raise awareness of these life saving programmes and encourage everyone invited to go for the appointment – regardless of how well they are, or how well they think they are.”
To date, over 1,750 people have been diagnosed through the targeted lung health check programme, with over three quarters of those diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 when lung cancer is easier to treat – and treat with curative intent.
As part of the biggest programme to improve earlier cancer detection in health history, the NHS has now teamed up with Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation on a new campaign encouraging the hundreds of thousands of people who are invited each month to take up the potentially lifesaving scan.
Chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Paula Chadwick, said: “It is truly heartening to see the progress being made in the early detection of lung cancer because of these life-saving programmes.
These checks are allowing us to get ahead of lung cancer for the first time, catching the disease at the earliest opportunity, often before symptoms even start.Paula Chadwick urges everyone invited to have a lung health check
“So many people like Jackie have already benefitted from having a lung health check but there are also a lot of people who have been invited and not taken up the opportunity, so I urge anyone who receives an invitation to have the check – even if you feel well, even if you have no symptoms, even if you’re convinced there’s nothing wrong!
“What Jackie’s story shows is you can feel well and still have lung cancer, and in Jackie’s extraordinary case – you can climb mountains and still have lung cancer.”