Medical science takes central role as Lawlor gives cancer the media treatment

Áine Lawlor takes us on a personal journey, as she explains how medical science changed the course of her life


When journalist Áine Lawlor was diagnosed with cancer, her illness and subsequent treatment were well documented. Two years later, she has come out the other side, not unscathed, but certainly more aware of her body, her health and the myriad of treatments which helped her to heal.

Like Lawlor, the majority of us put our faith in medicine but we usually have no idea how it works. Lawlor will explain some of the medical jargon in her two-part TV documentary, Facing Cancer, which starts on Thursday, November 7th.

As well as opening up a complex world to the lay person, the programmes will also explore Lawlor’s personal journey as a mother-of-four who was able to view her own cancer cells and discover how medical science changed the course of her life.

“I was diagnosed as being HER2-positive and oestrogen positive in 2011 and spent a year having treatment – surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” recalls the broadcaster.

HER2-positive breast cancer is one that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells.

In about one of every five breast cancers, the cancer cells make an excess of HER2 due to a gene mutation. This gene mutation and the elevated levels of HER2 that it causes can occur in many types of cancer – not only breast cancer.

HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. They’re also less responsive to hormone treatment.

However, treatments that specifically target HER2, such as Herceptin, which Lawlor had, are very effective.

“During that time I was lucky enough to meet Dennis Slamon, ” American oncologist and chief of the division of Hematology-Oncology at UCLA.

Fascinated by treatments
“He pioneered Herceptin and I became fascinated with the various medicines and how they are used to treat all the different types of cancer.

“Before my diagnosis I was in the dark about many of the treatments because as a fellow patient said to me ‘doctors were speaking a language you never want to have to learn’.

“But I believe that knowledge is power and the more we know about what is happening to our bodies and how it is being treated, the better.”

With this in mind, as soon as she was given a clean bill of health, Lawlor began planting the seeds for a much-needed insight into the terrible disease we call cancer.

“When I got back to work last year, I was keen to raise awareness about cancer – to inform the public what exactly it is and how scientists and doctors are working to try to come up with ways of treating it,” she says.

“The Irish Cancer Society was keen to get involved as they knew informing the public as much as possible about the disease was vital, particularly as survival rates in poor socio-economic groups were not as high as others – so getting the information to as many people as possible became our mission.

“The word cancer scares a lot of people and currently one in three people in Ireland will develop the disease at some point in their lives. In the next 25 years, that figure will grow to one in two because we are all living longer.

“But although this statistic doesn’t seem heartening, new treatments are being developed all the time so there is always hope.

“Taking my own story as an example, when I was sick I was always wondering what was going on in my body and how it was responding to treatment.

“So in the making of this programme, I had the opportunity to see my scans and found it fascinating to see the difference between a diseased breast and one where the cancer cells had been eradicated – and the fact that I am alive and well today is purely down to the extraordinary combination of drugs which were used to treat my particular strain of cancer.”

Learning her own medical history was very therapeutic for Lawlor but so too was the opportunity to talk to others who have also been through the disease.

“Having cancer is like being part of a different world with a whole community of people who have a common bond and there is a huge appetite for information, discussion and knowledge,” she says.

Different stories
“I met people with very rare cancer, others who were given a short time to live but are now fit and well, thanks to new treatments, and others for whom their story is entirely different, so it was both an interesting and somewhat emotional journey.”

However, despite being one year post surgery, Lawlor does not take her health for granted as every cancer patient knows the chance of it returning is always a blot on the horizon.

“Everyone who has had cancer is always worried about it coming back,” she admits. “We all want a magic wand to eliminate it forever, but while this isn’t possible it can be monitored to ensure any recurrence is detected early.

“I was a smoker for 20 years and visited the Sanger Institute in Cambridge to find out more about the possibility of me developing lung cancer in the future.

I learned that every 15 cigarettes smoked causes a genetic mutation.

“So smoking is like playing Russian roulette with your health and while it’s impossible to say if this triggered my cancer in 2011, it’s clear that it obviously wasn’t a good thing to do.

“But there is a lot I can do to try to prevent a recurrence. I am currently on oestrogen-suppressing medicine, my lifestyle is healthy and active and I am also relying on science to help out if it does return.”

Lawlor also travelled to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, one of the biggest dedicated cancer centres in the world, where she witnessed the latest research.

“It was amazing to see how treatments are changing so fast and how they are making a difference to patients,” she says.

“I met one woman with a malignant melanoma who was initially given a very short time frame, but thanks to the latest medicine, she is now fit and well, and if she develops a resistance, there will be something else which can be used to treat it.

“So it is fascinating to see that medicine is not only helping her to stay alive but is also allowing her to have a good quality of life, which is just as important.”

Cost barrier
But while revolutionary, the cost of cutting edge treatments is a barrier to everyone getting the best medicine available.

“We are looking at facing a cancer epidemic in the next couple of decades so decisions need to be made about what price we are prepared to pay for these life-saving treatments,” says Lawlor.

In Facing Cancer, Lawlor encourages others to seek help as early as possible because while cancer diagnoses are rising, so too are scientific breakthroughs, “so there is always hope for survival,” she says.

Áine Lawlor Facing Cancer, RTÉ One, 7th and 14th of November.

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