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From a ‘dark, scary place’ into the limelight: Hannah’s story

by Elisa Mitchell | Personal stories

21 December 2023

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Hannah Gretton with Dr Hugo De La Pena
Hannah Gretton with Dr Hugo de la Pena

When Hannah Gretton was given the devastating news last Christmas that she had breast cancer, she never imagined it would give her the opportunity to help others enjoy celebrations that they feared they would never see.

As her diagnosis was confirmed, the usually outgoing, salsa-dancing hotel worker from a coastal village in Hampshire found herself in what she described as a ‘dark, scary place’, struggling to come to terms with the fact she had lost all control over her future.

Hannah, 48, said: “I suffered a cold for a week and just hid myself away. On reflection, this was me processing the news and preparing myself mentally.

“As I tried to comprehend what was happening to me, I remember going over the statistics that 1 in 2 of us will get cancer and suddenly felt glad that by having it myself, I’d taken it away from someone else. I was then compelled to cut my long hair off for the Little Princess Trust and raise money for Cancer Research UK.”

Swept up in a whirlwind of medical appointments that replaced her daily routine and armed with two ‘chemo outfits’ and ‘Super Woman’ pants to help her mentally separate treatment from everyday life, Hannah was under the care of cancer consultant Dr Hugo De Le Pena at University Hospital Southampton.

Hannah cutting off her long hair to donate to the Little Princess Trust
Hannah cutting off her long hair to donate to the Little Princess Trust

Having worked closely with Cancer Research UK as both a committed fundraiser and appearing in the charity’s previous and current adverts, Dr De La Pena was helping to find real patients to be part of a national awareness and fundraising drive to shine a light on cancer breakthroughs.

Hannah said: “Dr Hugo called me to ask if I would like to be in the new Cancer Research UK advert and before he’d even finished his sentence, I said, ‘Yes please.’

“I was keen to do anything to raise awareness and encourage people to support the research that means I get to celebrate Christmas this year with my family.”

The charity’s new ‘Together We Are Beating Cancer’ advert highlights the heartwarming moments – from big birthdays and anniversary celebrations, to quality time with loved ones – being made possible for people affected by cancer, right now.

Featuring real patients, it demonstrates the power of research and the invaluable impact it can have on people like Hannah.

Hannah said: “When you hear the word ‘cancer’, you don’t know if you’re going to beat it, but I really felt like my cancer had to have a purpose. In my mind I didn’t want to be thinking, ‘Am I going to survive or not?’ Whilst I was still here, I wanted to do something to help other people and I was just so passionate about that.”

As well as personally raising £3,000, Hannah was happy for the charity to film her as she attended an appointment with Dr De La Pena. As one of several cancer patients and survivors demonstrating that they’re living proof of the progress made in research, Hannah can be seen with her mum supportively holding her hand as she finds out how she’s responding to treatment.

The charity’s latest figures show that around 1.2 million deaths have been avoided in the UK since the mid-1980s, due to advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Over the last four decades, UK cancer mortality rates have fallen by around a quarter, after peaking in 1985 for men and 1989 for women.

Hannah welcomes the figures and says: “The progress that’s been made means I only had to receive five sessions of radiotherapy instead of 15. I’m also receiving phesgo – an injection of two types of targeted cancer drugs (trastuzumab and pertuzumab) called monoclonal antibodies.”

They work by attaching to proteins (HER2) on or in cancer cells that make them grow or divide. The aim is to stop the cells from growing and kills them. Cancer Research UK contributed to understanding the underlying biology of its target (Her2), supporting the rationale for developing drugs against it.

It’s one of many developments since the 1980s that Dr De La Pena sees benefitting his patients on a daily basis.

Hannah making a Christmas wreath

He said: “Drugs like tamoxifen which we regard as humble drugs, have changed the way we treat cancer. Although we still use chemotherapy and it still has a role, we’re moving away from it and getting more into this clever medicine and targeting the achilles heel of cancer.

“Now, when we take a biopsy, we can look at the biology of the cancer, the genetics, the receptors, how the cancer’s behaving and once we understand what we’re dealing with, then we go in for the kill with the right drugs.

“Because of this, we’re now able to drop some of the more toxic drugs and come in with treatments that are more intelligent like herceptin and pertuzumab and as a result, the cure rates are a lot better.

“We used to say, ‘One day, we will cure cancer,’ but we are curing cancer now.

It’s amazing when you give good news – it’s incredible, priceless. I want to be able to give that news to 100% of my patients and if we keep investing, that eventually could happen.”

Since last Christmas, Hannah has received chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy and will continue to receive phesgo every three weeks. Her transition from the dark depths of despair into the limelight have given her a focus to help her through treatment and she’s also now a member of Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Insights Panel to ensure the charity’s work represents the needs of all people affected by cancer.

Crucially though, Dr Hugo has been able to tell Hannah the news they were both hoping for this Christmas – her treatment has been successful.

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