Amanda Cawthorn is a Target Ovarian Cancer Research Advocate, and recently attended a hands-on course at Warwick University, organised by Independent Cancer Patients’ Voice. The Voice course was organised for people like our Research Advocates who have a diagnosis of cancer and are lending their voices and expertise to influence and promote cancer research projects across the UK.
I decided to get involved as a Research Advocate because I want to help Target Ovarian Cancer to move ovarian cancer research forwards, so that women like me get the best treatments available. I wanted to give some of my expertise from working for a leading contract research organisation to support Target Ovarian Cancer’s research programme.
I’ve already done a lot as a Research Advocate. Recently we reviewed the applications in Target Ovarian Cancer’s last round of research grants, and I was delighted that one research project looking into developing novel treatments for clear cell ovarian cancer was approved, because this is the subtype of ovarian cancer that I was diagnosed with.
I jumped at the chance to go on the Voice course because I wanted to get a better understanding of the biology of cancer, how ordinary cells mutate into faulty cells and cancer develops. The course was a week long, and there were many lectures as well as hands-on lab visits which gave us a brilliant understanding of cell biology, DNA, how a gene mutates, and the hallmarks of cancer.
The p53 gene and pathology labs
In lectures, one particular gene that stood out to me was the p53 gene. The gene is known as the ‘the guardian of the genome’ as it senses damage and orchestrates repair and would normally remove cells threatening to become cancerous. However in some people there is a mutation in this gene, which means that it might not work properly and this could allow cancer to grow more quickly.
We also went on a tour of the pathology labs – this was fascinating. We looked at different specialist areas from chemical pathology, from processing blood and other liquid samples right through to histology, which is the microscopic study of human tissues. In histology we saw a kidney being dissected, being measured and weighed then each step in the arduous process of being prepared to be analysed (watch a video of the process from Bristol University). It goes through a number of processes, starting out as sample tissue, then fixation, embedding, sectioning and staining. Once the sample is ready on a glass slide, the scientists on the course uploaded the image into a computer rather than use a microscope as it gives a clearer image of how far the cancer has spread, so scientists can work out what type and stage the tumour is. I hadn’t realised that it takes at least seven days to go through this process, which is why sometimes histology results can feel like they are taking a while to come back.
Another interesting thing we examined was a body that had gone through the process of plastination – this is where they take all the fat out of the cadaver so they can study the organs in the body. I was able to see all the organs and tissues that I knew the cancer cells had spread to in my body, and what amazed me the most was how tiny ovaries are – about the size of a 50p coin. I had a tumour that was 26cm in diameter, which is massive in comparison, so that was eye-opener.
Outside of lab time, I was really riveted by a lecture on Vitamin D. It has been found out that people going through radiation treatment for bladder cancer get very inflamed bladders. By taking a high dose of Vitamin D, the bladder inflammation was reduced. The scientists, including Dr Rosemary Bland from the University of Warwick, believe a high dose of Vitamin D could help with cystitis too, something which I and a lot of other women experience after our ovarian cancer treatment. More research is needed there but it was very interesting to hear in the lecture.
The course week was complex and demanding, but absolutely fascinating, and I feel I now have a much better knowledge of cancer and how it works, which will be a great help with our work as Research Advocates.
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