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Research saves lives – just ask Eileen, and many thousands like her

by Kat Arney | Analysis

18 December 2013

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When we talk about cancer, it’s often in terms of numbers and statistics. We know that one in three people will get cancer in their lifetime, but half of all people diagnosed today will live at least five years. We know that survival rates have doubled over the past few decades, and that thousands of lives have been saved thanks to advances in diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

Yet, as our new advert highlights, at the heart of these big numbers are individual people, with their own stories to tell.

Eileen Condon is one of them.

Eileen enjoying Cancer Research UK's Benefactors Dinner

Eileen enjoying Cancer Research UK’s Benefactors Dinner

In 2006 while working as a journalist, she was sent to interview Stephanie Moore MBE – who is one of our leading ambassadors for bowel cancer as the widow of football star Bobby Moore who died from the disease.

Eileen explains: “During the interview Stephanie told me bowel cancer wasn’t just a disease that affected the elderly. She also said that if diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than nine in ten bowel cancers could be treated successfully.

“I knew only too well that the disease wasn’t exclusive to the elderly and told Stephanie that my sister had been diagnosed with bowel cancer in her early 40s and had thankfully survived following her treatment.

“What Stephanie did next was a touching and very personal gesture. She asked me ifI’d been screened myself. When I said no, Stephanie urged me to consider it and gently pressed her home number into my hand, saying that she’d be happy to talk me through the screening process at any time.

“I thought this was a very decent gesture but passed it off as a kindness from someone who was just very passionate about her campaign – completely understandable since her husband would have survived if his bowel cancer had he not been misdiagnosed for four years.”

Yet it was only a couple of weeks after that meeting that Eileen found herself in her GP’s surgery, feeling exhausted and suffering from heart palpitations – symptoms that she’d been ignoring for a while as they got worse. It must be the stress of her job, she thought, itching to get out of the room and get on with things.

But her GP wasn’t so sure. He ran tests and asked about Eileen’s family history, including her sister who had suffered from bowel cancer at such a young age. And, just as Stephanie had suggested, he sent her for a bowel screening test.”What’s the point?” she thought, “It’s just stress.”

But just a couple of months later she found herself in front of a surgeon, who gave her the diagnosis nobody wants to hear. “Even as I heard his words: ‘It’s bowel cancer.’ it didn’t register,” Eileen says. “You can’t be talking about me – cancer happens to other people.

“I didn’t have time to think about illness, or to get ill. I was so busy working in the media, seven days a week, running from appointment to appointment.

“Often I would interview people about the battles they had faced with cancer. I didn’t think for a moment that one day I might be in the same boat, and from that initial diagnosis my life would never be the same again.”

Eileen’s diary was still very busy but instead of meetings, phone calls and interviews, now it was appointments for radiotherapy, surgery, chemotherapy, clinics, blood tests, CT and MRI scans, and a seemingly endless stream of clinics at the local hospital.

After having her tumour removed by surgery, she was given the devastating news that the cancer had spread, meaning six months of chemotherapy.

She says: “I felt vulnerable, lost, as if I had entered another world – a hidden world that exists behind hospital doors. A world where the only thing that matters is trying to cope with cancer. Whatever we had done in the outside world – children, teenagers, adults and the elderly – here we were all levelled by this illness.”

But it was also in this hidden world that Eileen witnessed great compassion and kindness. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, and cancer experts who want nothing more than to see their patients walk out of the door fit and well.

She also met other cancer sufferers, who, despite their own debilitating conditions, genuinely wished one another well. “We urged one another to look to the future, to go for long held goals, dreams and ambitions, whether they were grand – travelling the world, writing a book, changing career – or humble.

“Usually, though, they boiled down to a simple aim – to cherish the time we spend with our family and friends, before we have to inevitably say goodbye.”

Eileen has no intention of saying goodbye just yet. Because she was diagnosed at a relatively early stage, the treatment worked and she is now fit and well. Yet it’s more than that.

“I’m incredibly lucky to be here, but it’s not just luck. It’s thanks to research, which led to the tests and the treatments I had. And it was the keen eye and sense of people around me who knew that early diagnosis was key.”

In the years since her cancer, Eileen’s life has changed. She ditched what had become to her the unfulfilling, hectic media lifestyle and decided to concentrate on something a little more meaningful instead. She now works for Cancer Research UK as a regional press officer, helping to find and share other people’s stories about the impact of our work on their lives.

As far as Eileen’s concerned, she sees herself as living proof that research works, and that years of efforts by scientists, doctors and nurses are paying off. Thanks to advances in research, bowel cancer death rates have almost halved over the past forty years. She says, “I’m so grateful for the research that’s been done. If you want to know about the results, here I am.”

But while Eileen has a good news story to tell, we know that there are many people who aren’t so lucky. We’ve made huge strides in some types of cancer, such as bowel, breast and prostate cancers, and some types of childhood cancer. But there are other areas including lung, pancreatic, and oesophageal cancers, as well as brain tumours and other rare cancers where we need to do so much more.

But we can only spend the money we have. We receive no government funding for our research, and our life-saving work relies on donations from our supporters.

Thanks to your help, our research has helped change the picture for tens of thousands of people like Eileen, bringing us closer to a day when all cancers are cured.