I was seven weeks old when my Dad was diagnosed with cancer. It was just a tiny lump in his neck. They had just taken it out, and discovered it was a malignant adenocarcinoma of the parotid salivary gland. This is a very slow type of cancer, which in a way is fortunate, because I did get to know my Dad. They had to go back in and remove more tissue, and in doing so the nerve to the right side of his face was damaged. This meant his face drooped a little on the right side. To me this was just the way my Dad looked, but he always turned his right side away in photographs.
I must have been six or seven when I found out that my Dad had cancer. It had come back, this time there were metastatic tumours in his lungs. They did chemotherapy, but this didn’t stop it from coming back in his lungs several more times over the years.
My Dad used to drive for work. One day he was driving along and pulled in behind a truck. At least, he thought he had seen the end of the truck go past, but it hadn’t. It was only a minor traffic accident, a fender bender, but it was a symptom of something far worse. They found a metastatic tumour the size of a small orange in the part of my Dad’s brain which controls vision.
For this they treated him with radiotherapy. They had made a plastic mask to hold his head still, so that they could line everything up to target that brain tumour. My sister and I went along one day to see how it was done. I remember being very impressed by the radiotherapists; they showed me some of their medical images. From then on I knew, I too wanted to help people with cancer. My Dad’s hair fell out from this round of treatment too, but not uniformly this time, just in patches on the sides of his head where the radiation had been aimed. But at least it didn’t make him nauseous. He always used to wear hats with pompoms on to keep his head warm.
The cancer started to win the battle only a year or so later. The worst part for him was that his brain was affected. He had such difficulty remembering the names of things, he found it very frustrating. He also got very thin. I see this now looking back at photographs, but it’s funny, I don’t remember him this way.
He got to have one last summer. He loved to sail or “potter about in boats” as he used to call it, and we went out on our boat Jemima P, which he had built himself. He only went into hospital on the last week, where they gave him morphine for the pain. I stopped going to visit him there because he was so vague on the morphine that he didn’t seem like my Dad anymore. He passed away at 6:20, on the 18th of March, 1994, he was 49 years old. He had never once complained about his illness, or any of the pain he went through.
Since then I have made it my mission in life to understand how a normal cell becomes cancerous. The answer comes on the most basic level of the cell, the DNA, the blueprint for how a cell should function. We all accrue little mutations in the DNA of our cells throughout our lives, and most of the time this doesn’t matter much at all. But sometimes these mutations occur in just the wrong places, activating cancer causing genes or switching off cancer preventing genes.
We know what a lot of these cancer genes are, and how some of them work. We need to identify them all, and find out how they all collaborate to contribute to cancer. Most importantly, we need to learn how to target these mutations and the cellular pathways they disrupt, developing clever new strategies to stop cancer in its tracks. My hope is that I will one day contribute to a world where if someone’s parent, child or loved one gets sick with cancer, we will know exactly how to successfully treat it.
About the author: Amy Marshall is a postdoctoral research officer working in the Gene and Stem Cell Therapy Program at Centenary Institute under Professor John Rasko. She is studying the genetic changes that occur in the development of different cancers. She contributes abstracts to the Cure4Kids website and has written for The Conversation.
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