Coach’s life-saving action ‘puts brakes on’ swimmer's stage 4 lung cancer

Ex-international swimmer, who was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer in 2018, feels fit and well thanks to a clinical trial at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester. 

Karen Huizer, 60, a civil servant from Gee Cross in Tameside, Greater Manchester only discovered the cancer after her swimming coach, Kevin Nuttall, noticed she was struggling to breathe and suggested she get checked out by her doctor. Her GP sent her immediately to A&E where they found her left lung full of fluid. She was diagnosed with advanced (stage 4) lung cancer. 

Super-fit Karen, who has held 16 British Records Masters Swimming, was referred to The Christie, one of Europe’s leading cancer centres, where she was offered the chance to participate in a phase 3 clinical trial at the NIHR Manchester Clinical Research Facility (CRF) at The Christie. 

Sponsored by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the CROWN study trialled lorlatinib, a new oral targeted therapy for patients with ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer. ALK is a mutated gene which can result in the uncontrollable replication of cancer cells. 

3 years later, the married mum with 2 grown-up sons, still has to take the tablets daily and visit The Christie for scans every 8 weeks. Karen’s tumour shrunk within weeks of starting the treatment and her cancer is now stable. 

Karen, who has never smoked, explained: “I was terrified and in a state of shock as I’d never been ill in my life before. I keep fit and healthy so getting cancer was the last thing on my mind. I was referred to The Christie, and after numerous blood tests and scans, put on a clinical trial. I didn’t have any other options available to me as the cancer was at such an advanced stage. If Kevin, my coach, hadn’t noticed my breathing and advised me go to the doctor it could have been too late. My neighbours either side of me both had cancer at the same time as me and now have sadly died, so it really brings it home to me just how lucky I am.
“I feel great and now and on average run 3 times a week, one long run in excess of 10k at the weekend plus a couple of shorter runs during the week together with a couple of early swimming sessions and the gym. Swimming is my real passion and I am a coach at the Manchester triathlon club.
“I turned 60 this year and it would be lovely to meet my 1-year old granddaughter who lives in Melbourne, Australia when we’re allowed to travel as I’ve only seen her on my phone.”

Kevin Nuttall, who coaches the Saracens swimming club in the Life Leisure pool in Hazel Grove in Stockport said: “I’ve trained Karen for years, so I immediately knew something wasn’t right as she was so out of breath. It just wasn’t like her. I had a gut feeling something was wrong.  I’m so glad she listened and went straight to her GP to get checked out.” 

Professor Fiona Blackhall, consultant medical oncologist and director of research and innovation at The Christie said: “Karen has done exceptionally well on this clinical trial. Although there is currently no cure for stage 4 lung cancer, we were able to identify the ALK-positive mutation in the cancer cells. This meant she was suitable for a targeted drug that blocks the ALK signal and puts the brakes on the cancer.”  

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer and accounts for the highest number of cancer-related deaths in both men and women. Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common (80 to 85% of all lung cancers) and ALK-positive tumours occur in 3 to 5% of those cases. Before targeted and personalised medicines became available, the 5-year survival rate for advances cases was just 5%. The disease is closely linked to smoking, but around 6,000 non-smokers a year die of it, which is a greater number than cervical cancer (5,300), leukaemia (4,500) and ovarian cancer (4,200). It is the UK’s eighth biggest cancer killer and the seventh commonest cause of cancer death worldwide. 

Karen was treated at the NIHR Manchester Clinical Research Facility at The Christie, providing a high quality, dedicated clinical research environment for patients to participate in trials. There are approximately 650 clinical trials taking place at The Christie at any one time. 

Last updated: December 2021