Dr Vicky Forster in the lab

Dr Vicky Forster at work in the lab

December is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, and it will always be a memorable time for Dr Vicky Forster – but not for the right reasons.

In this inspiring piece for the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) newsletter, Contact, she describes her own experience of cancer as a child and how it motivated her to pursue a career as a cancer researcher. She also tells the story of how a celebratory tweet when she gained her PhD made it around the world. Vicky’s now a scientist at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research – part of our Newcastle Cancer Centre. Thanks to Vicky and the CCLG for allowing us to share her story here.

On Christmas day in 1994, whilst the rest of my family were playing games in the lounge, I was asleep in bed upstairs feeling absolutely exhausted, despite the fact that I had only woken up a few hours previously. I had been ill for a few weeks with what the doctor thought was a chest infection. Later that week, when I still wasn’t better, my mum took me to the doctor again who sent me for a blood test.

Vicky aged eight

Vicky aged eight, undergoing cancer treatment

On New Year’s Eve 1994, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and admitted to St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London for a two and a half year program of treatment. All of my family were extremely shocked about the diagnosis, but we coped – my parents taking it in turns to either be in hospital with me in London, or with my little sister Becky who had just started school back home in Essex. It was hard being off school for so long at that age, as I really loved being in school, but the teachers at the hospital were incredible for keeping my passion for learning going.

From a very early age, I had always wanted to be involved in science. My early passions were physics and maths due to my dad being an engineer, but when I got ill my focus switched to more biology and chemistry-based sciences. The doctors and nurses were very patient and answered all of my questions about what was happening in a way I could understand, even though I think I must have been their most time-consuming patient! Learning more about what was happening to me when I was ill made it easier for me to understand everything and come to terms with it all.

Vicky Forster Graduation

Vicky on graduation day

I took a biomedical sciences course at Durham University as I wasn’t exactly sure which aspect of medical science I wanted to specialise in. I then did a summer lab-based research project at Durham which made me decide that I wanted to pursue a research PhD. I moved a little bit further North to Newcastle University, where I began working on my PhD on the genetics of acute myeloid leukaemia.

Before I started, we knew that a certain abnormal bit of DNA called a fusion gene caused a propensity for leukaemia, but more DNA faults were needed to actually cause leukaemia. We now know that the fusion gene itself leads to these second faults occurring. Further understanding of why people get leukaemia in the first place will allow us to come up with better ways of treating them and, in the future, we might even be able to identify those who are likely to get leukaemia and prevent it from happening.

Currently I work as a postdoctoral research scientist at Newcastle at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, continuing the work started during my PhD. I’m also working on a project looking at a new way to treat people with chronic myeloid leukaemia whose cancers don’t respond to current treatments.

Finally, there’s one more part to my story. I like to use the social media site Twitter, and sent this tweet the evening I passed my PhD viva (an examination interview) to let my friends know everything had gone well:

“Dear Cancer I beat you aged eight, and today I got my PhD in cancer research. Take that”

Shortly afterwards I went to sleep, with no idea how many people would eventually see it. It was retweeted across the globe and the response has been simply incredible. I have had so many lovely messages from people all over the world including many who have been affected by cancer. The nicest messages to receive were those from parents of children who are currently fighting leukaemia. They said reading my tweet had given them hope for their child’s future.

I think when parents are in that situation, it’s very hard to look past the next few weeks or months to what their child can achieve in the future. I am glad that the tweet gave them hope. In the future, I want to stay involved in cancer research as a scientist. I love my job and there isn’t anything else I can imagine doing.

Dr Vicky Forster, Northern Institute for Cancer Research