In 1995, many doctors only knew of the human papilliomavirus (HPV) as a virus that caused warts, and were disbelieving of the suggestion that it caused cancer of the cervix.
And although researchers had discovered that the types of virus that caused genital warts were distinct from those associated with cervical cancer, there was little appreciation among clinicians of the potential applications of this research. HPV vaccines were still some way off, and the general view was that cervical cancer was preventable by screening using the Papanicolaou test (often known as the cervical smear test).
All that was to change with the publication of a paper showing that testing for the presence of HPV DNA on cells taken during cervical screening would pick up cases of pre-cancer that were missed by Papanicolaou testing.
The clinician who led that research was Dr Anne Szarewski.
To all who knew her, it came as a great shock to learn that Anne died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend, just days before what would have been her 54th birthday.
It is a tragic loss for her husband, friends, colleagues and Cancer Research UK. As the charity’s CEO Harpal Kumar wrote: “Anne was an exceptional researcher who made an outstanding global contribution to the fight against cancer and we are proud to have been associated with her and her work. Anne was a wonderful colleague and we are indebted to her for the support she gave more widely to CRUK – she will be sorely missed.”
Anne was something of an enigma. She professed to have no understanding of statistics, but chose to work in analytic epidemiology. She thought that most mathematicians were on the autistic spectrum, but spent much of her career working closely with them and enjoying their company.
On social issues, such as contraception, feminism and gay rights, Anne was a liberal, but in other respects she was extremely conservative. She believed that certain standards should be maintained always being immaculately dressed which was often at odds with the tendency of academics to wear casual and sometimes scruffy clothes.
Anne’s genius was communicating the results of her research to a wide audience with passion and conviction. Whether lecturing to medical students, or writing for a woman’s magazine, Anne would convey her message with scholarship and an amusing anecdote.
Beyond her research, Anne contributed much to the health of women through her books and articles aimed at a lay audience. A quick search on the internet will reveal that for over 20 years, whenever there has been a news item about hormonal contraception or cervical cancer, Anne was interviewed. Journalists loved her because she imparted her great knowledge clearly and simply.
Most recently she commentated on Michael Douglas’s oral cancer using the link to HPV infection to renew her call for the vaccination of boys. As a lead investigator in some of the clinical trials of the Cervarix HPV vaccine, she was well qualified to comment.
Anne joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (one of the two forerunners of Cancer Research UK) in 1992 as a clinical research fellow. She worked with Dr Jack Cuzick on cervical cancer, including on the pioneering work on HPV testing. Two decades later, HPV testing is used routinely in cervical screening programmes around the world.
In parallel with this work, Anne gained a PhD looking at the effect of smoking on cellular immunity in the cervix. She showed that, in the absence of treatment, early signs of cervical disease picked up on screening in smokers were much more likely to disappear if women gave up smoking. This study was only successful because of Anne’s personality: she was a caring clinician who loved helping her patients. It is said that the extremely high rate of smoking cessation achieved in her study was solely due to the counselling and support she gave to each patient. She was more effective than nicotine patches in helping the women to stop smoking.
After completing her PhD, Anne continued to work for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund / Cancer Research UK, relocating to the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London in 2002, but still researching for Cancer Research UK. Anne followed her early trial of HPV testing in cervical screening with a larger multi-centre trial using a commercially available HPV test. The HART study was published in 2003 and was pivotal in the decision of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) a year later to recommend that HPV testing could be used in primary cervical screening.
Anne was also one of the first to study the possibility of HPV testing on self-collected vaginal samples; an approach that is finding increasing attention as a way to increase screening uptake both among those in developed world who find clinician sampling embarrassing, uncomfortable or simply inconvenient, and in countries with scarce resources.
In 2001, Alma from Coronation Street died suddenly of cervical cancer. The story had a huge impact across the country. It was reported and debated in most national newspapers and women’s magazines. For the first time, attendance at cervical screening increased. Anne was there for Cancer Research UK. She did so many interviews that the charity’s press team presented her with an Alma award!
People loved to work with Anne because working with her was fun. If they needed advice she would give her opinion clearly and unambiguously and usually in an entertaining way – often regaling her audience with stories about her beloved cat Bertie before turning to more serious matters. She was always willing to do what was needed and never felt that she was too important to roll up her sleeves, even turning up at a Freshers’ Fair to recruit girls to clinical trials. She did however have to ask what she should wear and for the music to be turned down.
And to many of us, Anne was the cake lady. Every day at 3.00pm she would produce cakes and wander into people’s offices to offer a little ‘pick me up’ and entertaining conversation. It has been said that wherever Anne worked, the team around her felt like they were part of a family, Anne’s family.
Last week Anne was busy as usual, caring for her patients, preparing lectures, and planning future research studies. This week, the Wolfson Institute where she worked is sadly quiet.
Anne will be greatly missed.
Peter & Louise
- Professor Peter Sasieni is Professor of Biostatistics & Cancer Epidemiology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Cancer Prevention at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine
- Louise Cadman is a Senior Research Nurse at the Centre for Cancer Prevention, based at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine.
Dawn Boyall November 1, 2013
So sorry to hear this terribly sad news. I too had the pleasure of working with Anne when I was at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now CRUK) press office over 10 years ago. Anne was always so approachable and kind and was amazingly talented at describing complex science in simple and understandable terms. A great loss.
Claire Brooks October 16, 2013
It was a pleasure and privilege to work with Anne on the HART study at ICRF and later at CRUK. She will be greatly missed and I shall never forget her.
Olga Goodall October 7, 2013
I am so sorry to learn about her death.
Thanks for the moving and elegant tribute.
This is really sad ending … Anne’s legacy will remain.
Anne (Anusia), as a young girl learnt to play piano. She enjoyed music very much …
Melanie Carter September 25, 2013
Very sad to hear this news. I chose my family planning lectures/meetings just to hear her. Her dry sense of humour made me laugh out loud…I don’t think many lecturers have managed that with me! Her lecturers were so concise. One of the people where i’d hang on every word. Genius.
Elizabeth September 15, 2013
So sad to hear this news. My late husband , Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi from Malaysia met Anne in the early 80s at the Middlesex where he was studying for his FRCR and she was a then medical student. We had the privilege to be at her 40th birthday at her Priory Terrace place when we were her houseguests. Mum had spent two weeks preparing the feast for her birthday? Anne was a most gracious hostess and an amazing woman with her dry humour. Remember her cat Atticus.
Cressida Ward September 11, 2013
It is so sad to see this news. Working with Anne was a huge privilege. She was a mentor in every way,when I was starting and she never forgot your name, always recognized your point of view and cared so much for patients and those working with her. It seems like only yesterday and she will be sorely missed both personally and professionally but never forgotten.
Karen Winterhalter September 10, 2013
I worked with Anne on two levels, at the Executive Director of Women’s Health Concern and then when the HPV vaccines were coming to market. She was both inspiring and adorable to work with and did some much towards women’s health in this country.
Paula Hensler September 9, 2013
Anne was not only an expert in her field but an outstanding person who was always ready to help and advise. It was a pleasure and an honour to be working with her. She will be deeply missed.
Ian Ellis September 8, 2013
Terribly saddened to hear of the tragic loss of Anne. We were at the Middlesex together and I knew what a huge contribution she had made and still had to give. We are all diminished by this. Condolences to her many family, friends and colleagues. Ian Ellis [email protected].
Stuart September 7, 2013
Thank you for this elegant and moving tribute.
I worked with Anne on contraception and HPV vaccination programmes. She was a truly class act. I’ll always remember her sighed comment of: “deep joy” in response to our at times dull requests. May she rest in peace.
Dr Rob Hicks September 7, 2013
Anne was one of the most inspiring people I have had the privilege to know. In every way she was an amazing person. She will be hugely missed.
Margaret McCartney September 6, 2013
I am so sorry to hear of Anne’s death. She was enormously kind and extraordinarily capable, and was so generous with her time and expertise when I often called on her. May she rest in peace.
Harriet Griffey September 6, 2013
I met Anne when I published her first book back in 1987 and, as her editor, was always impressed by her professionalism and expertise. As her friend I loved her dry sense of humour, intelligence and many kindnesses. Irreplacable.
Marika Sboros September 5, 2013
She was my friend. I truly gentle woman, wise, loyal, and of course highly intelligent. I will miss her deeply.
Dr Mark Porter September 5, 2013
Anne was a regular contributor to Case Notes and Inside Health on Radio 4 and her crisp, easy to understand, no nonsense explanations were highly valued by all of us at the BBC and, more importantly, by our listeners. She will be much missed.
Ana September 2, 2013
What a remarkable and inspirational women, I have never heard of her but this article makes me want to learn about her work and projects, this is a truly sad ending. Anne’s legacy will always remain!
maureen herbertson (was griffiths) September 2, 2013
I worked with Anne in the 80’s at the Royal Northern Hospital in North London.in the colposcopy unit.Her death has been such a shock She attended my wedding in 1988 where she presented me with her Family Planning book typical of Anne
Nicki E September 2, 2013
I was so upset to hear this sad news. It was me who gave Anne her ‘Alma’ award back in the summer of 2001. As part of the regional press team at ICRF/CRUK I spoke to her on a regular basis. It was usually with yet another request for an expert interview in the local press about cervical cancer, and if Alma’ illness was portrayed accurately on screen. I instantly liked her. What made me laugh was that this was one of the biggest story lines in Coronation Street about a much loved character, yet Anne had never watched the programme, and so didn’t even know who Alma was. I had to regularly update her on the characters and story lines, much to each other’s amusement. Her interviews, especially on local radio, were brilliant and she never said no to our requests. I joked that she must now be a true Corrie fan and that it was a shame that she wasn’t Alma’s doctor. I sent her a Rovers Return teapot with a certificate awarding her the ICRF ‘Alma’ expert. She thought it was hilarious and kept the teapot in pride of place in her office. I’m reading and writing this while watching tonight’s episode of Corrie, in which another much loved character, Hayley, is facing terminal pancreatic cancer. In the twists and turns of the cancer research plot, Anne was without doubt our own very much loved character. She will be sadly missed.
Daisy September 2, 2013
I had the pleasure of meeting Anne on a number of occasions. She was a wonderfully humorous human being who would never let me leave without putting chocolate into my handbag, She will be greatly missed.