When Judy Miller got a letter in the post calling for former smokers to take part in a study, she never expected what came next.

Taking part in the research, which examined whether lung cancer could be detected years before it would otherwise have been spotted, Miller discovered that rogue cancer cells had been quietly growing for four years, despite her displaying no symptoms of anything being wrong.

The 74-year-old had smoked for most of her life, from the age of 17 to about 60, so she was eager to join in the research when she heard about it. It was after going through X-rays, tests and questionnaires that the problem in her right lung was found.

“I was shattered [by the news]. I was 74 and in good health. I exercised and had not smoked for a number of years,” she says.

The news broke for the former journalist just before lockdown hit the UK and she was told that she needed surgery immediately to ensure the cells did not spread to her lymph nodes, because then they would be inoperable.

“Dr Martin Hayward said there was no choice and a week later I was in the hospital,” she says.

“I am very grateful I went through the study. As far as I understand it, they were just cells, the whole lung was not cancerous, but a few rogue cancer cells could have spread and caused my death. They were sitting there quietly for four years.

“The team operated in full gear and I came out and since then I have had few tests and I have one coming up soon and they are terribly thorough. I am one of the very lucky ones thanks to the Summit study [the name of the study she took part in], which is incredibly effective at detecting early tumours.”

Miller said that when she found out the news, she did not have a lot of time to think about it, but she felt sure she wanted the surgery, despite concerns at the time around catching coronavirus.

She says: “Mr Hayward put the fear of God in me and I thought: ‘I am going in.’ I had a few days to prepare for hospital and it all happened very quickly … I am not a cowardly person. I did worry a bit, but my surgeons said: ‘You have to get it done.’”

Miller says the Summit study is life-changing. Before her retirement last year she spent decades in publishing and had worked as a reporter for the Jewish Chronicle.

“I am now trying to write my memoirs as I have an interesting life. It’s a miracle [the cells were discovered]. I thank God every day that the invitation to join the study came to me and that, having found something, they whisked me off into hospital a week later. I could have been dead by now – who knows?”

She says the NHS has done her very proud and saved her life. The experience has left her continuously grateful.

“You read about those denied cancer operations and how many are suffering at the moment as their treatment for chemotherapy has been postponed. I did not go through any of that hell … I don’t take anything for granted, but this was a life-saving thing. I felt like I had a guardian angel looking out for me.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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