Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield: the science and art of cancer communication

There is something scary-sounding about Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield’s job: she is a psycho-oncologist.

We all know what an oncologist is, but the word psycho conjures up the image of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of that name…but in the flesh, Lesley Fallowfield is not at all frightening.

Lesley has the reassuring but firm manner of the nurse that she once was, coupled with the authority that goes with being a pioneer in studying the emotional and psychological aspects of the cancer experience.

Now professor of Psycho-Oncology at the University of Sussex, she has personally trained many hundreds of leading oncologists in how to communicate better with their patients, and is thus the ideal first person to be interviewed for this new blog.

Dame Lesley

Sitting in the basement of the elegant Royal Society of Medicine in London’s West End, she explained to me how she found her way into this professional niche. After she had completed her training as a nurse, she studied for a BsC in experimental psychology and neuroscience, and then a PhD. The defining moment in her early career came when she visited a friend at the Royal Marsden hospital in London. The friend was suffering the after-effects of an early bone-marrow transplant, and was very poorly indeed.

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Alive with cancer – why more of us are

However uniquely awful it is to be told you have cancer, the experience is one that many millions of us will have to go through.

The latest research shows that in the UK alone, some 50 per cent of the population alive in 2025 will get the disease. Count in their friends and relatives, and that means everybody is going to be touched by cancer, either directly or indirectly.

This is on the face of it very bad news: the incidence of this horrible disease is going up, for all sorts of reasons, and literally everybody will be affected as a result.

My mother remembers hearing her own mother and grandmother whispering in the back of a taxi in Manchester. That was the 1950s and they’d just visited a friend in hospital. My Mum, a child at the time, worked out that the friend had cancer. The word was unmentionable, a sure precursor of death, and sure enough the friend soon died.

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Hearing the Worst

“You are going to have a horrible time,” the doctor said, “a really horrible time.”

I had turned up for what I thought was a routine appointment with the consultant. He looked at his notes, then at me, before leaning over his desk and telling me that the test had come back positive.

I did not feel any physical pain, but a numbing sense of shock. His words were well meant, but not reassuring as I found myself going into battle with cancer.

After the diagnosis, I had a million questions, ranging from – can I be cured, how are you going to treat me and – the most pertinent question of all – how long have I got? Like millions of others, I suffered an agony of uncertainty and anxiety.

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