Remembering a Champion of Breast Cancer

This week we celebrate Alison McCartney, a British pathologist who was born on March 31, 1950.

In 1994, nine months to the day after delivering her third child, Dr. McCartney discovered a lump in her breast.  She was 43 years old.  She learned that the stage IV breast cancer had already spread to her liver, adrenal glands and bones.  She also learned that there were no resources available for women with breast cancer.

McCartney heard about a new concept in the United States: cancer support groups.  These gatherings, where cancer sufferers simply shared and talked with one another, were shown to improve quality of life and even life expectancy.

But when McCartney tried to establish a similar group in London, she met with resistance from the UK Medical Research Council.  She was told that “it was not helpful for sufferers to sit around talking about cancer and death.” (BMJ)  “Some doctors dismissed the idea as morbid; others said it would not work because British women would not talk about their emotions.” (History’s Women)

McCartney refused to give up, and finally convinced St. Thomas’ Hospital to support her idea.  At the first gathering of nine women with advanced breast cancer, McCartney brought a cake to set the tone.  After television aired a film of her journey, “Alive and Kicking,” McCartney received hundreds of letters of support from cancer families.

Despite her deteriorating condition, McCartney campaigned to improve services for women with breast cancer.  She lobbied Parliament, spoke at meetings, hosted workshops and worked at the hospital.  “Although I know I have to die,” she wrote, “I want to do the best I can with whatever time is left.”  McCartney died on March 8, 1996, two years after her initial diagnosis.

Today there are numerous resources available for breast cancer sufferers, families and researchers.  Agilent has published a white paper on “Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Past, Present and Future” (PDF).

Agilent’s genomic target enrichment products, gene expression and CGH microarrays have been used extensively for the study of breast cancer.  And Agilent’s pathology solutions provide cancer diagnostic products for leading reference laboratories, hospitals and other clinical and research settings.

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