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5th August 2019

Mike Stenton

It was because of his love of tennis that Mike realised something wasn’t right with his health. Tests revealed he had stage 4 lung cancer, aged just 54. But, thanks to new treatments, he is now able to carry on playing to a sport that means so much to him.

“I was diagnosed with lung cancer back in September 2017- with incurable, inoperable, stage 4 lung cancer. It came as a shock, as I had never smoked in my life, but I later found out about fifteen percent of lung cancer patients are non-smokers. Very little is mentioned about this, as it’s thought to be a smoker’s disease. I had always pursued a healthy lifestyle and diet and I have regularly played tennis for the past nineteen years.

It began just over two years ago when I was 54. I went to the doctor’s with a persistent dry cough. I was seen by a trainee GP who thought it may be caused by acid reflux. I was prescribed Omeprazole to treat this and the cough subsided for quite a while.

About mid-June 2017 I suddenly began experiencing breathlessness when playing tennis matches. I went to the doctor’s and they sent me to get a chest X-ray. The results were negative so they ruled out anything serious and began testing for late onset asthma. After about six weeks I was getting no improvement from the asthma inhalers so asked if I could use my private healthcare insurance to see a specialist at the Chiltern Hospital. The specialist thought that my symptoms were asthma-related and started testing me all over again, so another six weeks went by.

I kept on playing tennis and at the time was the men’s first team captain. During one match I was getting exhausted in-between many of the points which was unusual. I was unaware at this point that the main airway to my right lung was blocked by a large tumour. After the match I coughed a lot and noticed a small speck of blood. I photographed it and showed it to the specialist at the next appointment. I was then sent to get a CT scan and a day or two later was told there was a suspicious shadow in my lung. Following this, a bronchoscopy was booked and about a week after that I was told that I had advanced lung cancer that had, at this point, spread to the lymph system. I had a small tumour just under my collar bone.

Playing tennis helped me to get diagnosed earlier than I would have done, as it made me aware of a couple of the symptoms. It has also helped me to keep positive in fighting this disease.

Tennis has helped Mike in more ways than one.

The biopsy results showed that I had a type of cancer that has a particular type of mutation. It’s known as ALK positive. About 3-5 percent of lung cancer patients have this type, with the vast majority being non-smokers.

I started off on the first line of treatment which worked well for about four months, reducing the size of the tumours. My breathlessness cleared and for two months I could play singles tennis again. But in January 2018 the breathlessness returned, followed two months later by coughing a considerable amount of blood.

I underwent a brain MRI and on my next meeting with my oncologist, the bad news was given to me that the cancer had spread to multiple areas in the brain and the brain lining. As a result, I had to tell the DVLA I was no longer able to drive. I was lucky enough to get early access to a new drug that had proved to be very effective on patients in the USA, both in the lungs and brain. The drug brigatinib is now licenced as a second-line treatment by NICE in England.

I began the treatment mid-June and by early August, when I got a second MRI scan, the disease was virtually gone in the brain. By October 2018 the disease had also virtually vanished from the lymph nodes and lungs. The tumour that had been blocking my airway had totally gone, and for the primary tumour, only a cavity was visible on the scans, where it had been in the bottom of my right lung.

I can now play tennis without the breathlessness I had before. Despite this I will never be cured as I have stage 4 lung cancer. I can also drive again, following intervention from my oncologist, having originally being told I couldn’t drive for two years after being given the all-clear.

If I had been diagnosed fifteen years earlier, the chances are that I would not have survived as long as I already have. New advances in medicine, such as targeted therapies and immunotherapy, are giving patients a much better prognosis than in the past. I am still hearing of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients with the ALK positive mutation; some only teenagers or have young families. I live in hope that more research is carried out in this area so that anyone affected can get better treatments and live better for longer.”