Screaming in pain, stricken Claire Cunningham stared death in the face and pleaded for her ordeal to be brought to an end.
Only a miracle could save Claire as she edged closer and closer to death’s door just six weeks ago.
Incredibly, one happened. And today, she is back on her feet and pain free – a far cry from the haunting six stone figure who believed her time was up.
She was saved by immunotherapy treatment, which harnesses the body’s own ability to fight the disease.
It was unavailable to Claire on the NHS but two fundraising pals raised an initial £11,000 – enough to take her to the Hallwang Clinic in Stuttgart, Germany.
She arrived so frail that doctors feared she would not last the night. But the treatment came just in time.
Early tests show no trace of the breast cancer which had spread to Claire’s spine, skull and other vital organs.
Claire said: “It’s a miracle. I can’t believe I’m actually here. A couple of months ago I was in so much pain I begged for death to come and take me.
“I was screaming in agony and having hallucinations on painkillers. Now I’m here, walking and talking.
“I have the best friends in the world and I am starting a New Year that I never thought I would see.”
Claire was given six months to live by NHS and private doctors last January after breast cancer struck a third time.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and even a double mastectomy proved unsuccessful but she fought on determinedly, even turning up for work every day at her successful flooring firm.
Then, in mid-November, she had a series of convulsions and ended up at world-famous St James’s Hospital in Leeds, where doctors organised palliative care so she could spend her dying days at home.
But close friends and employees Adam Sayers and Jayne Thomson, who moved in with Claire to care for her round the clock, refused to give up hope.
Claire talked of having cutting-edge treatment at Hallwang. Her consultant had warned the treatment would be no match for her aggressive illness.
But Jayne, 49, and Adam, 29, persuaded the clinic to treat her and set up a gofundme page to pay for an air ambulance.
Claire said: “The doctors in Britain had written me off. They said even if immunotherapy did work, I couldn’t get on a trial because I was too ill. Doctors agreed I had reached the end of the line, that nothing could be done.
“I started researching the Hallwang because I didn’t want to give up and I won’t give up. If I gave up I might as well have put a gun to my head the day I was diagnosed as terminal. I’d heard about a friend’s cousin treated at the Hallwang and I was researching it when I was taken into hospital.
“After the seizures I remember very little until I woke up in the clinic in Germany. When I realised my friends had arranged the whole thing and well-wishers had donated I was overwhelmed. Within 10 days I was back walking around on a frame. I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t.”
Immunotherapy, hailed as the cancer medicine of the future, encourages the immune system to fight the disease.
But the NHS has yet to embrace it. An article on its Choices website says “the results, while promising, are unfortunately not a cure” – and calls claims that immunotherapy could be the future of cancer treatment “over-hyped”.
In Britain, clinical trials are taking place with blood cancer patients and doctors are researching genetically engineered viruses which could kill rogue cells and activate the immune system.
American studies have shown immunotherapy has been hugely effective against kidney, bladder and head and neck cancers. But with no availability on the NHS, British cancer sufferers must fund the treatment themselves.
Pal Jayne said: “Claire was so sick I wondered if we’d even make it to Germany. She was at death’s door. But we made a pact that we would celebrate our 50th birthdays together next year and I wasn’t going to give up on that.”
Claire, of Wakefield, West Yorks, has fought breast cancer twice before. But she was “in total shock” when it returned and had to tell her 78-year-old widowed dad Joseph that this time it was terminal.
Desperately-ill Claire was eventually taken to Hallwang on November 22.
She said: “I was hardly conscious. I must have thought I was going on holiday because I was apparently asking for bikinis and high-heeled boots to go in the case. Jayne sat with me that first night at the clinic in case I passed away.”
But the miracle drugs kicked in. Within two weeks of starting vitamin infusions and immunotherapy vaccines Claire was pain-free and able to walk with a frame.
She can now walk short distances, is eating, has put on weight and says lumps around her body have disappeared.
Tests indicate the cancer in her spine has gone completely. But the treatment has cost in the region of £110,000 and Claire has had to take every penny from her company to pay for it.
She could not afford to fly back to the UK and Adam had to drive her home in a 1970s VW campervan. Claire is now hoping strangers will help fund her next round of treatment, due to start later this month. Immunotherapy is the ray of hope for many cancer sufferers – if they can afford it.
Journalist AA Gill, 62, died last month after lung cancer had spread to his neck and pancreas. Immunotherapy would have cost £100,000 – almost four times the cost of chemotherapy. Although he was denied it, the writer labelled it the weapon of choice for “every oncologist in the First World”.
Medics in Germany are enthusiastic about the effects of drugs containing the antibody Atezolizumab.
Lead researcher Dr Achim Rittmeyer said: “Atezolizumab reinvigorates patients’ immune systems against cancer, and our trial has shown that this has significant results for their survival.”
But Claire warns that immunotherapy is not a soft option. She adds: “It involves being drip fed with vitamins and immune-boosting remedies before huge injections of vaccine into your stomach. I think part of the reason my body was so responsive is because I had already changed my life after having breast cancer.
“I ate clean, walked 30 miles a week and basically lived a toxin-free existence.”
Claire had treatment alongside West Yorkshire mum Sally Major, who faces the prospect of selling her home to pay a £300,000 therapy bill. UK medics failed to spot her bowel cancer 12 times.
Claire feels angry that she was not offered an NHS trial.
“It’s horrendous a doctor can tell you there is no treatment and you’re literally sent home to die. I met so many others at the clinic who were all told the same thing and all of them are now in recovery.
“But there is medical help – you just need to pay for it. I’ve put every penny into my care and now I have to ask strangers to help me go back to Germany.
“It should be available on the NHS… everyone deserves a chance to live.”
Dr Emma Smith, of Cancer Research UK, on immunotherapy
Claire benefited from immunotherapy, a relatively new treatment which has been a big step forward in the fight against cancer.
Patients are given drugs which change how our immune system reacts to cancer.
Because cancers start in our own cells, it’s very easy for the immune system to overlook them. It is trained to attack viruses and bacteria, but to leave our own bodies alone.
Immunotherapy attempts to retrain the immune system to attack the cancer cells.
We have really good evidence that it can work on patients with advanced skin cancer. Clinical trials showed that around half of patients had a really good response.
The cancer disappeared in a lot of people for whom other treatments – such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery – hadn’t worked.
But researchers are still desperately trying to figure out why half of people do so well and half of people don’t respond at all.
These therapies are very expensive and can have nasty side effects, like the bowel condition colitis and various autoimmune diseases, because they work by taking the brakes off your immune system.
Researchers are trying to find ways to predict who will do well, so we know better who to give them to.
Clinical trials are still ongoing to find out how well immunotherapy works for other types of cancer.