Research gives us hope

Our advisory panel of people with experience of cancer played a key role in creating our current exhibition, Outwitting Cancer. Here, panel member Rachel talks about the power of research, and her experience of being part of the panel. | By Rachel Bruce 


Finding a lump

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2018 aged 45, it was a massive shock. I had felt a bulge in my neck and a specialist confirmed I had a lump in my thyroid; a butterfly shaped gland in the neck that produces hormones that help regulate the body’s metabolism. 

I was told the lump was likely nothing to worry about, but that I should have it removed as it was growing, and pressing on my vocal cords. So I had an operation to remove half my thyroid (your body only needs half to function), including the lump.  The lump turned out to contain a 45mm malignant tumour, and so my journey as a cancer patient began. 

Facing the fear

Hearing the diagnosis made me question whether I was going to survive the disease because historically cancer is seen as life-threatening, isn’t it?  All the tests, scans and appointments after my diagnosis were frightening, but I tried to focus on getting better and being confident in the treatment plan my oncologist put together for me. 

Thyroid cancer is typically treated by complete removal of the thyroid, followed by radioactive iodine treatment where you swallow a radioactive substance that travels through your blood and kills the cancer cells. 

This treatment became available due to research that took place between 1937 and 1942. The first thyroid cancer treatment using radioactive iodine was trialled in 1942. Without research, this successful treatment would not have been available to me. The science and the research gave me hope.

I had another operation to remove the rest of my thyroid. This was followed by the radioactive iodine treatment where I was given a radioactive pill, carefully administered by a physicist wearing protective clothing. I had to stay in hospital for four nights in a special isolation room to prevent others being exposed to radiation. This successfully treated my cancer and apart from needing daily medication to compensate for not having a thyroid, I am now well. Research made this happen!

"I would like my children, and future generations, to hear that 'c-word' and not be scared, because they will know that there are effective treatments available."

Having a voice

After my own life-saving treatment I wanted to play a tiny part in tackling this disease, so I started running for the Royal Marsden Cancer Research Charity to raise funds for research.  As I recovered, I became keen to learn more about the science behind cancer and the current research. When the Crick asked me to be involved with the creation of their Outwitting Cancer exhibition, with the aim of raising awareness about cancer, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

During our sessions that were designed to inform the content of the exhibition, we discussed what cancer meant to us, what we understood about it, and the research into it. 

We talked a lot about fear. “Cancer” has always been such a scary word, a diagnosis that no-one wants to hear. But all of us on the panel agreed that innovative developments through research mean more of us are able to live with cancer and be cured. I would like my children, and future generations, to hear that 'c-word' and not be scared, because they will know that there are effective treatments available.  

Being involved with the Crick has given me a voice as a patient, and enabled me to widen my understanding of the amazing progress that is being made in cancer research, which the Outwitting Cancer exhibition is now publicising to a wide audience. If the exhibition can generate awareness, and ultimately enthusiasm, about the importance of research, then that is a positive step that will help us move forward with confronting this disease.

Believing in science

On the opening night of the exhibition at the Crick, Professor Charles Swanton, clinician scientist at University College London Hospitals, senior group leader at the Crick and Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, spoke about how in 1972 (the year I was born) 75% of women diagnosed with breast cancer died, and that today 75% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are cured. It’s an incredible statistic isn’t it? It’s unbelievable progress. Research did that! 

During my time on the patient advisory panel I was lucky enough to meet scientists and hear about their work, including how treatments are being developed that are tailored and personalised to the needs of a specific patient rather than to a specific cancer. It’s all ground-breaking stuff.

"I have been treated for cancer and I am a cancer survivor. A living example of the power of research."

Trusting in medicine

I have always been a huge advocate of western medicine and my first-hand experience of being treated for cancer has strengthened this. I believe we should be optimistic about the opportunities clinical research is giving us to deal with this ubiquitous disease.

We need to have faith in medicine. What I’ve learned is that the scientists at the Crick work tirelessly - making progress, following processes - so that we can have a more hopeful future. Medicine is incredible and the more I discover about the work these scientists do, the more confidence I have that this disease will be outwitted.

I have been treated for cancer and I am a cancer survivor. A living example of the power of research.

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