University of Birmingham scientists 'stand up to cancer' as disease strikes close to home

A University of Birmingham scientist who is researching new ways to improve cancer treatment has teamed up with Cancer Research UK and Channel 4 to launch Stand Up To Cancer after surviving the disease herself.

In an ironic twist of fate, Dr Beth Lucas (27), from Stourbridge, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 24, while in the final year of her PhD at the University of Birmingham.

Working with Professor Graham Anderson and Dr William Jenkinson at the University of Birmingham, Beth’s research receives support from Stand Up To Cancer and seeks to benefit patients who need bone marrow transplants as part of their cancer treatment.

Beth Lucas and Prof Graham Anderson

The group are researching how to give a much-needed boost to the immune system so children and adults recovering from bone marrow transplants do not get infections. The work could improve treatment for a variety of different cancers, including Hodgkin lymphoma, the cancer Beth was diagnosed with.

Beth is in remission, but is aware she may need a bone marrow transplant if her cancer recurs. That is why she is urging men, women and children to help transform the lives of cancer patients and their families by supporting the Stand Up To Cancer fundraising campaign.

Launched in the UK in 2012, Stand Up To Cancer has already raised more than £25million to accelerate the translation of brilliant scientific discoveries into innovative new tests and treatments for cancer patients. The campaign culminates on Friday 21 October with a night of live TV on Channel 4 led by the brightest stars in film, TV and music, including Davina McCall, Alan Carr and Adam Hills.

Beth first noticed something was wrong in September 2014 when she discovered a lump near her collarbone. 

She said: “It felt a bit like an olive under my skin, but you couldn’t see it. I had no other symptoms except for itchy skin, which at the time I’d attributed to an allergy. I didn’t know what it was so I did a bit of digging around and became concerned it might be lymphoma.” 

Beth went to see her GP who immediately referred her for a range of tests including CT and PET scans, which confirmed she had Hodgkin lymphoma.

She said: “I was obviously shocked, devastated, and confronted with many concerns – what about my own mortality; would I survive this? The treatment could affect my fertility – what would this mean for having children later on? More immediately, how was I going to get my PhD thesis and viva completed, and how could I apply for my first job with cancer? 

“I had no choice but to simply get on with all the hospital appointments and deal with things one day at a time. Once the initial shock was over, I tried to put a brake on the emotions because I knew I had to get through whatever was needed to save my life – as unpleasant as the prospect was!”

Beth was treated with chemotherapy for four months, which left her feeling tired and nauseous, and with a sore mouth and hair loss. The treatment had also weakened her immune system, which meant she was highly susceptible to infections.

Beth continued: “In addition to coming to terms with my diagnosis, I also had to think about my future fertility. I always knew I would want to start a family at some point, and was given the opportunity to freeze eggs or embryos before starting chemotherapy. This wasn’t something my partner and I had previously discussed, but it was suddenly a critical decision that needed to be made quickly.”

“I was a few months into chemotherapy and most of my hair had fallen out when I completed my PhD viva, so I wore a wig to help me feel and look as normal as possible. By February 2015 I was in complete remission; I ditched the wig with only a short growth of new hair when I went to Venice for a conference. I was lucky enough not to need follow-up treatments such as radiotherapy or a bone marrow transplant, although unfortunately this isn't the case for all lymphoma patients.”

After completing her PhD Beth went on to work as a post-doctoral research fellow under Professor Anderson, looking at ways to boost the immune system following stem cell transplantation. Their work is supported by Stand Up To Cancer, as well as the Medical Research Council (MRC).  

Her personal experience has left Beth acutely aware of the importance of pushing scientific boundaries. She said: “I’m passionate about wanting to make a difference in medical research. As I spend my research time in the lab, I don’t get involved in seeing cancer patients, however, being a patient myself has reinforced the impact and importance of the research we’re doing.”

“That’s why I’m calling on everyone in the West Midlands to join me and Stand Up To Cancer. We need to fight back against this disease by raising money so that research can be translated into treatments for patients faster.”

Prof Graham Anderson, who is leading the research at the University of Birmingham, explained: “After a bone marrow transplant it takes a while for the body’s immune system to regroup and rebuild itself. This means children and adults can get dangerous infections after bone marrow transplants.”

“Our research is testing a way to speed up the development of new immune cells after transplant and reboot the patient’s defences as fast as possible.”

This year, there are many ways to Stand Up To Cancer and show your support. Cancer Research UK is calling on people to take a stand and do something to help raise money at work, school or at home - from fancy dress days and sponsored silences to bake sales and open mic nights. 

People can also show their support for the campaign in style as a fun range of clothing and accessories for men, women and children is available online at www.standuptocancer.org.uk

The range includes special edition Henry Holland designed t-shirts (£9.99) hoodies (£25) pin badges (£1) wristbands (£0.99) digital watches (£2.49) and umbrellas (£2.99).

Jane Redman, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for the West Midlands, said: “We’re calling on people across the region to unite and stand up to this terrible disease. Our fight against cancer is at a turning point but we can’t afford to stand still. One in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives.

“Every day, our researchers work tirelessly to beat cancer. With support we can continue to fund ground-breaking research to help save more lives, more quickly. The time to act is now - come together, join us and Stand Up To Cancer.”

For more information and a free fundraising pack visit: www.standuptocancer.org.uk

Make sure to watch BBC Midlands Today tomorrow to learn more about Beth's research. 

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