Keeping Things Simple: A Tube of Blood for Early Cancer Detection

Ani Hsieh is a Taiwanese cancer survivor who was diagnosed with Stage 3 Lymphoma at the age of 26. Ani is now an advocate for better cancer diagnosis and care. This is her story.

My first visit to the hospital as a patient accompanied by my mother was an unsettling experience. Joining the long line of patients waiting their turn to see the doctor, I could not help but wonder, “Are we all here to see a general practitioner for the common cold? Or am I really here for an oncologist to diagnose my tumour?”

A fellow patient noticed the perplexed expression on my face and sympathetically offered his observation that, since he started visiting the clinic five years ago, waiting times have increased over each successive year.

He turned to my mother and said, “Don’t fret. Cancer treatments are advancing rapidly. Besides, you have your daughter to accompany you.” Little did he know that I was the one who had cancer, at the tender age of 26.

Long queue in front of Division of Oncology Cancer 

The long line of patients at the Division of Oncology

Cancer Affects Both Young And Old

After being diagnosed with cancer, I became hypersensitive to anything related to cancer. My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer within two months of my own cancer diagnosis. It seemed to me that cancer was as pervasive as the flu virus.

Two cancer diagnoses within the span of two short months caused an upheaval in my family. My mother wryly commented that my aunt’s diagnosis surprised her more than mine since my aunt always took care of her health. Although I was a young person, I had an irregular lifestyle. Her comment was met with silence from the family. My thoughts turned inward, “What if we had been correctly diagnosed earlier? Could we have avoided some wrong choices and saved on some unnecessary treatments? Would I have a better chance of living? Isn’t it true that cancer patients who are diagnosed earlier have better chances of survival?”

Why Don’t People Get Screened For Cancer?

During the cancer treatment, patient need to take 3 to 6 hours of drugs, sometimes even a few days of hospitalization.

During treatment, cancer patients are injected with drugs over a period of 3 to 6 hours.

My parents “celebrated” the completion of my first round of chemotherapy by purchasing a wig for me, as well as undergoing extensive physical check-ups themselves, as if it were some family ritual.

My mother was extremely anxious before her own physical examination. Part of the process included an endoscopic examination of her digestive track. She spent the evening before her endoscopy on the toilet bowl because she followed the procedure of taking bowel-clearing drugs before the examination. She became very concerned about the invasive nature of the endoscopic examination.

I tried to assure her that she would be under general anaesthesia and would not feel a thing. “If it weren’t for your illness, we wouldn’t even consider undergoing such an ordeal,” she shot back.

It was then that I realized that many people avoid physical examinations not due to some ostrich mentality, but because of the invasive nature of such examinations.

Keeping Things Simple: What If Cancer Detection Was As Easy As Drawing Blood?

Frequently meet with friends in the medical field to discuss the possibilities to improve the treatment process for patients.

Ani frequently meets up with friends in the medical field to discuss how the cancer patient journey can be improved.

After my condition stabilized at the end of 2017, I looked at back my journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment and realised that there was much in the patient journey that could be improved. As a result, I pledged to do all that I could to improve the experience of future cancer patients. Given my unusual status as an ongoing cancer patient, I was generously provided with knowledge and advice from healthcare professionals across the board, from clinicians to medical technology entrepreneurs to policy experts.

Sifting through all the expert advice and opinions I received, I quickly realised that the key lies in making early cancer detection for the general public as easy and painless as possible. If this could be done, it would remove a formidable barrier to cancer screening. It would greatly impact how society views cancer detection and lead to changes in behaviour that would improve cancer diagnosis and outcomes.

It was then that I learnt about a Singapore company called Ark that offered the intriguing prospect of early cancer diagnosis through a blood test. To detect cancer, Ark’s technology tests for molecules known as miRNA in a tube of blood. If early detection is the difference between life and death, and if the main obstacle to early detection is the invasiveness of existing testing techniques, then a minimally-invasive cancer detection procedure like offered by Ark is potentially a life-saver for many!

What is a microRNA?

microRNAs (miRNAs) are tiny biological molecules that are naturally found in the human body. miRNAs have important regulatory functions in human cells and are present in the body of a healthy person. However, abnormalities affecting miRNAs can lead to many diseases as they are important regulatory molecules in the body. Cancer patients have abnormal miRNA profiles compared to healthy individuals and different miRNA profiles have also been observed in different cancer types and at different stages of the same cancer.

Ark has conducted research to identify miRNAs that are present at abnormal levels in stomach, lung, and breast cancer patients. They have further developed tests to detect each cancer type sensitively and specifically. Clinical studies have shown that Ark’s blood test can accurately assess a person’s risk of having stomach/breast/lung cancer.

Technology To Overcome Emotional and Economic Barriers

During the course of my investigations into ways of improving cancer detection, I came across the story of a doctor in Taiwan who had lost his mother to cancer. Driven by a desire to help others, he discovered a treatment regime developed in Japan that would cost each patient USD$100,000 every year. He was taken aback by the cost. He then realized that the efficacy of a cancer treatment was not just in its power to cure, but in its economic feasibility as well. As a result, healthcare policy-makers work hard to ensure that treatments are accessible to the general public through a combination of affordable cost and ease of use. It is, therefore, encouraging to know that Ark plans to make their early cancer detection kit available at local clinics at a price that is affordable to the general public.

I did a quick and unscientific market survey for this product on my mother. Would she be willing to be tested for breast cancer, if all it took were for her to have a tube of blood drawn? She answered, “Of course.” The answer became blindingly obvious: if an early cancer detection kit is minimally invasive on both the body as well as the wallet, it would quickly become a mass-market product.

Early Detection: The Key to Survival

Now I’m lucky to finish the treatment and run the patient-focused community with my partners.

Ani now runs a patient-focused community with her partners.

We would all like to believe in the often-cited principle: Hear no evil, see no evil. If we are ignorant about our illness, then maybe we are not really ill. However, one cannot escape from the statistical truth: early detection of cancer raises survival rates by 100–200%.

When I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, I had a 10-centimeter-wide tumour in my chest and the cancer had already spread to my neck. Through a series of what seemed to be fortuitous circumstances, my cancer was tamed, and now I get by with just orally-delivered treatments.

My battle with cancer has brought home how critically important early cancer detection is. I now “force” my family members to undergo regular comprehensive physical examinations. My hope is that everyone can benefit from better awareness of their physical condition. I believe that this now easier to achieve than ever, made possible in part by a new generation of affordable, minimally-invasive testing techniques such as the one offered by Ark.

Article written by: Ani Hsieh
Article translated by: Ark Bio Team

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