Five childhood cancer survivors visit Professor John Anderson in the lab
When Kavil was eight years old he started feeling very tired.
Then the nosebleeds began.
Kavil was taken to hospital where his family was given the news that every parent dreads – he had cancer.
He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and spent the next year being treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital with intensive chemotherapy followed by two years of regular check-ups.
Thankfully, Kavil – now 22 – is in remission and preparing for his final exams in pharmacy at Hertfordshire University.
Kavil is one of five childhood cancer survivors who we invited to visit the lab of Cancer Research UK-funded clinician Professor John Anderson to learn about his cutting-edge research on childhood cancers.
It just so happens each of our guests has more than just a passing interest in the latest developments, as they’ve not only survived their disease thanks to research, but have each now decided to pursue a career in research or medicine to help future cancer patients.
We followed them as they learnt about Dr Anderson’s work to harness the immune system to treat cancer. Along the way we heard five truly inspirational stories of survival, determination and dedication to help others survive their disease.
A lifeline to others
Thanks to research, more than eight in ten children now survive cancer for five years or more, compared to just three in 10 in the late 1960s. But there’s so much more to do to make sure all children survive and with the best possible quality of life afterwards.
Kavil is living proof of the importance of research – the chemotherapy he was given means he’s now able to follow his dream of becoming a pharmacist. His interest in pharmacy stems from his vivid memory of the drugs he was given as a young child, and the tremendous hope they represented to his family:
“I want to be on the front line treating patients” Kavil explains. “The moment when you receive the medicine you need is so critical. All your hopes are in one little bottle. I want to be the person who meets patients and their families face to face to provide that lifeline they need.”
A source of strength
Reminiscing with Kavil was Max, a 21 year old survivor of chronic myeloid leukaemia, now studying psychology at Bournemouth University. Both Kavil and Max require yearly checkups and they swapped stories about this annual ritual at the hospital, where the nurses still remember them and are so excited to see them again, even a decade after they were treated.
For Max, it was the health psychologist who was the source of so much strength for him and his family during treatment. “She single-handedly turned a nightmare into something almost bearable.” Now, Max’s greatest desire is to become a health psychologist himself and to pass on that strength to others.
Understanding the biology of cancer
Dr Anderson specialises in immunotherapy, treatments that turn the body’s immune system against cancer. During the lab tour, he explained how “In the late 1990s people felt that the immune system had nothing to do with cancer. Twenty years later this view has been entirely turned on its head.”
This was something of a refresher course for Lee, now 20 but diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia when she was 14. Lee is in her third year at Manchester University studying biochemistry, but is currently doing a placement in Dr Anderson’s lab, as she hopes to pursue a career in cancer research.
Lee’s interest in studying to be a cancer researcher was triggered during a period of enforced solitude when she was being treated with immunosuppressive drugs following a bone marrow transplant. She was forced to live a very sheltered existence for several months to ensure that her own body didn’t reject the life-saving bone marrow from a donor.
Unable to see any friends, Lee devoted her time to her studies. She had a strong desire to learn how cancer worked, how this horrid thing inside her had come to be, and how she could stop it.
Better, kinder treatments
During the lab tour, everyone had a hands-on opportunity to see how the battle against cancer is being waged from the laboratory bench. Donning their lab coats, the students looked at cancer cells through the microscope and became acquainted with the latest tools designed to destroy them.
It was particularly inspiring for Lucy, who is starting her first year of Cancer biology and Immunology in Bristol. Four years ago she was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomysosarcoma, a rare cancer of the muscles.
Her mother Emma said: “The chemo was awful, but she kept on smiling through it all, even when she lost all her hair, grim for anyone, but especially for a 15 year old girl. All the wonderful healthcare staff commented on her ability to keep smiling and stay cheerful, no matter how horrid things got, and how rough she might have been feeling.”
Lucy is now in remission and keeps immensely cheerful. She’s determined to help find the next treatment, and to make it better and kinder, so that no one else need go through the same treatment she had.
Caring for patients
Camilla, a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, is also motivated by a desire to help patients. She’s studying medicine at the University of Bristol. Having spent two years in and out of the hospital, she finally finished her treatment on the same day as she finished her GCSE exams.
She got 10 A stars – an astonishing achievement for any pupil, let alone someone who has had to endure months of cancer treatment.
Camilla took everything cancer had to throw at her and now she is studying to becoming a cancer doctor because she wants to help as many people as possible through their treatment.
The next generation
Kavil, Lee, Max, Lucy and Camilla all represent the next generation of cancer specialists and are an inspiration to us all in their commitment and drive to defeat this disease.
Their experiences of hospital wards, waiting rooms and missed school days have been pivotal in their choices of career.
They have beaten cancer once. Now they are on the path to help beat it for good.
Alan Worsley is a press officer at Cancer Research UK