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What do you do when you work in cancer research and your Mum gets breast cancer?

Two years ago I began working at Worldwide Cancer Research. Two weeks ago my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cancer hitting home

I am surrounded by cancer research facts and figures all day and like everyone, I have known people who have had cancer, and many who have died from it.  But this is different, this is my Mum.  This is close and this is real.

My Mum’s reaction has been to say that 'it’s just like any other disease.'  She asks simply and rationally: 'which treatment is best - tablet or surgery?'  My daughter’s reaction was to say 'which Granny?'  My son’s reaction was to ask 'will she die?'  And me? I want to know the facts.  How big is it?  Exactly where is it in the breast?  How aggressive are the cancer cells? Has it spread? What are the latest survival statistics telling us?

As Head of Research at a cancer charity, and someone who worked in a cancer research lab, what would you expect?

What I do know

Maybe you would expect me to know everything there is to know about cancer, but I have to say I don't.  I know quite a lot about ovarian cancer, the cancer that my research focussed on when I worked in the lab in London.  But cancer isn’t just one disease.There are over 200 types of cancer and while breast cancer and ovarian cancer are similar in some ways, they are very different in the way they grow and spread.

More and more we are realising that each type of cancer should be regarded as almost an entirely separate disease.  In fact, breast cancer itself is grouped into several types, each with different genes involved, growing in different parts of the breast at different rates and responding to different treatments.  Instead of knowing it all, I know a little bit about a lot of cancers, so my insider knowledge isn’t always much use.

I do know that I am relieved that she has breast cancer as opposed to some other types of cancer. I know that, thanks to research, breast cancer survival has doubled in the UK in the last 40 years[1].  And I know that 90% of women are still alive five years after diagnosis and if, like my Mum, it’s stage 1 breast cancer, meaning it was found early, that statistic rises to 99%. All because of research funded by charities like the one I work for.

More needs to be done  

Whilst my Mum is not out of the woods yet, I am strangely calm about the diagnosis and confident about her making a full recovery.  But I feel for those who are diagnosed with other, more dangerous cancers where the statistics are not so good. Pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, for which survival rates are all less than 10%.  Or people whose cancers are detected later, when it is much harder to treat and survival rates are lower.

I want everyone with a loved one diagnosed with cancer to feel like I do.  To feel that sense of reassurance.  To know that it isn’t a death sentence.  To know that it can be treated and that their loved one will survive.

That is why more cancer research is needed, and that is why I do what I do every day.

Dr Lynn Turner is Head of Research at Worldwide Cancer Research

[1] http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/breast-cancer/survival

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