Remembering Jane Wardle British Academy

This week, we lost a dear friend, a colleague, a mentor, an intellect and an exceptionally talented researcher – Professor Jane Wardle, one of the UK’s leading health psychologists.

Jane’s contribution to the field of cancer research is hard to overstate. Unlike many of her peers, she came from neither of the traditional cancer research backgrounds – clinical and biological research – but, instead, from the behavioural sciences. And this unique approach led her to assemble one of the largest, most innovative and productive groups in this field worldwide – the CR-UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL.

Since taking over as Director of the Centre more than two decades ago – back then a mere handful of researchers –  Jane had a sustained record of pioneering research that has transformed our current understanding of cancer prevention, screening, early diagnosis and survivorship. Over this time, she mentored more than 40 PhD students, and produced more than 600 peer-reviewed publications.

But mere numbers do not do justice to the impact her research has had.

To take just a few of many prominent examples from throughout her career, her work in collaboration with Professor Wendy Atkin on the UK Flexible Sigmoidoscopy Trial led to its incorporation into the NHS bowel screening programme, while she also helped pave the way for the introduction of the HPV vaccine, exploring its acceptability among parents.

Her pioneering work on obesity and weight control has led to the development of evidence-based methods, such as the Ten Top Tips, to support people in improving their health behaviours to reduce cancer risk.

In the field of early diagnosis, Jane’s achievements are perhaps best exemplified by the Cancer Awareness Measure, now used to measure the impact of a wide array of initiatives aimed at improving awareness of cancer risk factors and symptoms and adapted for use around the world; and in pioneering studies understanding the role of fear and fatalism as people seek help for cancer symptoms – with particular focus on social-economic inequalities.

Undoubtedly, Jane’s contribution to the whole NAEDI movement, and our thinking about cancer diagnosis, has been pivotal.

And more recently, in the field of survivorship, Jane set in motion ongoing work with potential to change ‘usual care’ for cancer survivors, understanding their health behaviours and needs. She was an active, expert member of the NCRI’s lifestyle and behaviour change clinical study group – an essential part of the UK’s cancer research infrastructure. And Jane was one of only a handful of researchers to have been elected to both the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

But to many of us, Jane was more than a brilliant researcher, she was so much more: an incredible friend, mentor, mother, grandmother and wife. She had so much time for people and was fun, insightful, humble, gentle, caring – and so very wise. She was the person many of us would choose to share their problems, frustrations and innermost secrets with, simply because she had an uncanny knack of getting straight to the nub of the issue in the most non-judgemental way, and articulately providing any number of elegant solutions, when none had previously seemed possible.

Jane also had quite a wicked sense of humour when she chose to reveal it. She shared so much of herself and all that were privileged to know her well, benefitted hugely from her generosity. She also possessed an immense capacity for new ideas and for sheer hard work – a powerhouse in a tiny frame, with such a distinctive and musical ‘hello’.

And Jane absolutely adored her family, was inseparable from her beloved Andrew and always spoke so tenderly and proudly of her children and, more recently, about her grandchildren too. When Dorsey arrived, in her own inimitable style, Jane was quite clear that she was unimpressed by fancy ‘grandmother-type names’ and determined she would be called Jane, thank you very much.

After being diagnosed with chronic leukaemia, Jane wrote eloquently about the impact it had on both her understanding of her work, and family life – the professional and personal. Her article, published in 2002, concludes:

“I hope that we are in a new era where patients and doctors will work together to understand and treat disease, and people with a foot in both camps might be able to make a special contribution.”

Jane’s contribution to our lives, both professionally and personally, was more than special. She is irreplaceable, and as you can see in the comments below, from the scores of heartfelt tributes that have poured in since the news broke, she will be missed tremendously by so many.

Our thoughts and sincerest sympathies are with Andrew, Lucy, Matt and all Jane’s extended family.

Sara Hiom, Director of Early Diagnosis and Cancer Intelligence