A final goodbye and some thoughts on World Cancer Day

The last two days were the kick up the proverbial backside that I needed to finally write and post an update or two here.  But this first post isn’t (much) about me.

Yesterday I paid my last respects to a man who was a great influence on me.  Michael Scoular was my tutor (a kind of formal mentor) at school, who oversaw all aspects of my development from the ages of 13 to 18.  He was also the Head of Modern Languages and taught me German, which went on to be my foreign language of choice, and nowadays is the first language spoken in my home.  Ja, echt.  And he wasn’t a scientist, but it was his careful guidance which skilfully opened an educational path to me which was at its core scientific, but never let go of language.  And as the eloquent tributes at his funeral yesterday expressed, Michael also struck also consummate balance when steering the line between tough old-school authority and kindly, fatherly support and observation.  He was just what I needed.  Danke, Michael. Rest in peace.

Michael died on 11 January 2017 of cancer.  I’ve not yet been told what type, but it was only diagnosed in November, and he was admitted to hospital on Christmas Eve.  It was clear from the outset that it was terminal.  And he was cremated yesterday, the day before World Cancer Day.  There are lots of ways you can get involved in this if you want to, like this, or this and so on, but here are some of my own thoughts, followed by my top(*) 5 goals for us all on the topic today:

  • There are LOTS of very different types of cancer and often media reports, news of friends or family (such as in Michael’s case above for me), or even more specific discussions, go no further than “has got cancer” or “sadly died of cancer”. It makes all the difference in the world what type of cancer someone is diagnosed with.
  • I know it’s more complicated than that, and quite often social or personal constraints perhaps quite rightly hold us back from prying too deeply, but it is important and makes a difference to how we all move forward in our collective battle against this collection of conditions.
  • If someone rang in sick at work and said “Sorry, I can’t come in, I’m infected” perhaps they’re just being black humoured, have got a cold, and you can expect them back in a few days.  On the other hand, if they’ve just flown back from West Africa and have got Ebola, you may be looking for a new financial administrator before long.  OK, so now I’m being black humoured, but you get my point.
  • The same goes for cancer.  Lifted directly from here:  “More than 7 out of 10 children are cured of cancer. Testicular cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and many cases of leukaemia can all be cured in adults with current treatments. Most skin cancers are cured with surgery. And many cases of thyroid cancer and cancer of the larynx (voice box) are cured with radiotherapy.” On the other hand, there are as we all unfortunately know some types of cancer which, especially if only diagnosed at an advanced stage, frankly are a fairly prompt death sentence.
  • Sure, so I’m probably preaching to the converted here by spelling out the above, but maybe not exclusively.  So my list of goals on World Cancer Day, is this:
  • Let’s talk about cancer more. And not in a shrugging, tutting, “oooh, innit terrible” way.  I mean let’s all find out more about cancer, shine a light on it, understand it, and study it.
  • Don’t be afraid of the topic.  No, that’s not my place to dictate.  What I mean is, it’s fine to be afraid of the topic, but don’t let that hold you back from finding out more about it.  Engage with it.  Knowledge is power.  Don’t shy away from the science.  If you’re not a scientist, that’s fine, but just keep asking “So what does that mean in layman’s terms?” if it’s sounding complicated.
  • Differentiate between the many different types of cancer.  If someone who should know better just says to you “It’s cancer”, and of course if the moment is right, pull the face and ask “But what type?”.  If I told you my friend had broken a bone in his body, he could certainly expect differing levels of sympathy from us depending on whether it was his neck that he’d broken or his little toe.
  • Support the many different types of research into and work in cancer research and cancer therapy.  And I don’t just mean dropping some loose change into a collection box, making a generous bespoke donation, or even doing your own fund-raising (by being brave, silly, athletic, stubborn, or preferably all four simultaneously).  But I do mean those as well.  Yet one of the most effective ways of supporting is by advocating the international free movement of the researchers and clinicians that do the work.  And this ban may only be temporary, but it’s hard to be optimistic that there won’t be more similarly myopic measures.  We are stronger together.  Guess which way I voted in the UK referendum on 23 June 2016.  I’m not remoaning though.  It’s vital, in the specific context of the topic of tacking cancer and solely looking forward, that all that it possible is now done to allow foreign nationals to have the freedom to come to the UK to train and work in cancer research and treatment, and to ensure that UK individuals have the same freedom to go abroad to do the same.  Push it up your list of priorities.

 (* “top” in the sense of “I’ve just thought these up off the top of my head; they are in no particular order.)

Have a good weekend all.  Spare a moment’s thought for World Cancer Day today, and the next time the topic comes up, just prod it a little further when the moment is right, even if science isn’t your thing.  Educate yourself, and guide others towards the light.  It’s what Michael would have done.

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