Thank you!

Thank you for your tremendous feedback to this blog since it went live earlier this week. A lot of people have dropped a note to say they like the interview with Lesley Fallowfield. Here is a great response from a leading oncologist:

Lesley Fallowfield’s influence has been profound, and formal teaching of communication skills is very much more widespread now than it was when I was a trainee. But still the emphasis is on oncologists, cancer surgeons, specialist nurses – that is, cancer specialists. We still hear horror stories from patients about how they first hear of their diagnosis, from non-cancer specialties like general medicine. Too many clinicians fear breaking bad news (new diagnosis, relapse and so on) – I’m not saying it is something to be relished, but doing this difficult job well can be just as much a rewarding challenge as many other professional activities we regularly perform.

This is a topic I will return to in future posts.

Meanwhile, it has been a busy week for cancer news. I pay tribute to Nicola Mendelsohn, head of Facebook in Europe, for coming out with the fact that she has incurable blood cancer:

Nicola has been put on the “watch and wait” regime which means that the doctors won’t do anything about her disease until, and if, progresses. Having “been there, done that,” with almost but not quite exactly the same diagnosis, I have to commend her courage and to wish her well as the years go by.

There was good news for Nicola, me and others with blood cancers: superb results from new trials. See

The other “c-word” in cancer is of course cure, and there seems to be a real hope that some diseases can be kicked into touch for long enough to be classified as cured.


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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