What's luck got to do with it?

Our advisory panel of patients and people with lived experience of cancer played a key role in creating our current exhibition, Outwitting Cancer. Hear from panel member Penny on why ‘luck’ isn’t the right way to think about either cancer or research. | By Penny Rutterford


I barely scraped through my science subjects at school. I have vague memories of Bunsen burners and a teacher who wore flares and brightly coloured kipper ties.

And to tell the truth, I’ve muddled through life quite well without thinking too much about the science behind everything I have and do.

But then I got cancer.

An unlucky diagnosis

One in seven women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. It’s pretty common and I think I already knew that. But it was never going to happen to me…right? 

The first shock was the diagnosis. The second was discovering that breast cancer is not just one disease. The third came as I settled down in the chair for my first infusion – who knew there were so many different types of chemo?

Enough with the shocks! Call me ignorant, but that ignorance was bliss. 
When I got diagnosed, I rolled up my metaphorical sleeves, had my sick bucket and headscarves at the ready, and started out on the “cancer journey” of chemo, surgery and radiotherapy. With luck and a fair wind, I thought it would kill my cancer.

Enter science, stage left AND right. What has luck got to do with it? Not a lot.

"I learnt from both my own lived experience and theirs, that science and research really matter."

The difference research makes

In some respects, I suppose I have been lucky – if losing a tit can ever be described as lucky – in that my cancer responded to treatment. Seven years on from my diagnosis I’m doing well, but I have met and lost fabulous ‘cancer friends’ along the way.

But I have also met people who are living well with a terminal diagnosis. I have seen them navigate their way through drug trials and new treatments that have not just extended their lives, but meant that they can live full and active lives – whether that means climbing in the Cairngorms or pushing a pram through Primrose Hill.

I learnt from both my own lived experience and theirs, that science and research really matter.

Going inside the Crick

Some of the hospital letters I’d received during my treatment were as impenetrable to me as the periodic table, so I was intrigued but a little nervous to step into the Francis Crick Institute and join the patient advisory panel alongside the team developing their Outwitting Cancer exhibition.

I’d seen and been impressed by the building, but I had no idea what happened inside. Who worked there? Did they all wear white coats? Did they speak in jargon? Would they look up from their microscopes? 

And do you know what - the people in there may be seriously impressive when it comes to scientific research and understanding different cancers, but they were also as normal as you and I. And they wanted to listen.

We talked about the language around cancer. We talked about the emotions you feel as a patient. We talked about how powerless you can feel when supporting a loved one. We talked about what cancer is and what it does to our bodies. We talked about misleading press articles and headlines. We did an awful lot of talking. And listening.

Because ultimately cancer is just part of us all. It’s about cells doing what cells do. And sometimes they go wrong.  

"I’m alive and kicking, but I didn’t ‘do battle’ with my cancer and I wasn’t ‘brave’, despite people telling me I was."

More than ‘luck’

I’m alive and kicking, but I didn’t ‘do battle’ with my cancer and I wasn’t ‘brave’, despite people telling me I was. I’m here because of the drugs available, the attention of the medical professionals and the work of scientists and researchers.

Do I sound like a Crick evangelist? Maybe I am. 

Am I cured of my cancer? I hope so. But it has changed me, and I am still coping with the lasting physical and emotional impact it has had on me. I’m still not that interested in science, just reassured that there are people doing what they do in the Crick. And between you and me, they weren’t all wearing white coats.

It’s a stark fact that every two minutes someone in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer. This exhibition allowed us to bring our own lived experience of cancer to tell the story of what cancer is and the progress being made to outwit the disease. Why does it matter? Because the application of science and research brings hope for us all. 

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