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World Cancer Day: Why Cambridge researcher Dr Mike Gill is wearing a Unity Band


By Paul Brackley


Dr Mike Gill has a number of good reasons to be wearing a Unity Band today (Monday February 4) to show support for World Cancer Day.

Dr Mike Gill, of CRUK Cambridge Institute, in his unity bands Picture: Mark Hewlett (6900824)
Dr Mike Gill, of CRUK Cambridge Institute, in his unity bands Picture: Mark Hewlett (6900824)

The scientist moved to work at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Institute after his father, Barry Gill, was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer.

For Barry, the diagnosis was a reason to start living again.

A former Merchant Navy officer and rigger, he had shut himself away after losing his wife of 37 years.

Faced with the bleak news, he took up his old hobbies once more and started seeing his friends. He died within 18 months, at the age of 66.

Mike sought answers by switching the focus of his research career from viruses to cancer.

He moved to the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, where last year he was part of a team that earned the charity’s Pioneer Award, which supports the development of innovative, higher risk ideas that could revolutionise our understanding of cancer.

Mike said: "For me, as a scientist, I found it very frustrating to hear how there was nothing that could be done for my dad.

“His cancer had come back and radiotherapy didn't help him second time round. They said the only option was palliative care. You're thinking, ‘There has to be something we can do, there has to be things we can try, radical things maybe, something they haven't tried before’.

"That's what we're trying to do now with the Pioneer Award. I am working with Dr Martin Miller on trying to unpick the complexities of the tumour and its environment, to show how the different cells interact. If we can understand this, then we can start to target them.

Mike was among those wearing a Unity Band on Monday - World Cancer Day - to show support for vital cancer research.

Symbolising solidarity with people affected by cancer, it can be worn in memory of a loved one, to celebrate people who have overcome cancer or in support of those going through treatment.

It raises money for Cancer Research UK, which helps fund Mike’s work. The charity receives no government funding and relies on donations from the public.

“I know it's only because of fundraising that I am able to do this work,” said Mike. “There are lots of challenges in research. It's very complicated - it's not just about the cancer but about the cells around and inside of the tumour.

“It helps having a personal motivation. It can be demoralising when experiments don't work out but when you have that inner stubbornness and determination, it gives you the drive to keep going."

Dr Mike Gill in the CRUK Cambridge Institute lab. Picture Mark Hewlett (6900826)
Dr Mike Gill in the CRUK Cambridge Institute lab. Picture Mark Hewlett (6900826)

Mike, who had been studying herpes viruses before his father was diagnosed, recalled:

“My dad had a cough that wouldn't go. His symptoms were there but he didn't listen to them. My sister made him go to the doctors. They sent him for X-rays straight away. The cancer was so extensive that his lung looked white on the X-ray.

"It woke him up, he had been very depressed after losing my mum. The diagnosis got him back to his old self.

“He started getting out with his friends and back into his old hobby of pigeon racing. He used to love pigeon racing, I'd go with him to the lofts when I was younger.

“He stopped after losing our mum. When he got back into it, he spent all day with those pigeons, it was his passion. It was nice to see him living again.

"The cancer came back within a year. He never moaned about it but you could see him deteriorate. My sister Mandy was amazing - she looked after him really well. His brother and sisters were really supportive too."

Now determined to make progress, Mike rarely takes time off and on difficult days in the labs, it is his dad he will think about.

“It never leaves you,” he said. “You move on and try to have fun and a good life but there is no part of you that can ever really forget what you went through. It's my incentive now, thinking of my dad.”

£54m spent in Cambridge last year by Cancer Research UK to aid research

Survival rates from cancer have doubled in the last 40 years - but there is much more to do.

Work by Cancer Research UK, which has key research facilities at its institute on Cambridge Biomedical Campus, has been critical in achieving this progress.

Last year, it spent more than £54million in Cambridge on scientific and clinical research.

Danielle Glavin, the CRUK UK spokesperson for Cambridge, said: “Banding together on World Cancer Day is a unique way for people in Cambridge to unite with the researchers like Mike and cancer patients around the world. It's a chance to show that together, we will beat cancer.

"One in two people born after 1960 in the UK will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lifetime, so we need as many people as possible to help back our doctors, scientists and nurses on the frontline against cancer.

"Wearing a Unity Band is a simple, easy way to raise vital funds, accelerate progress and save more lives. Small actions can make a big difference."

Unity Bands are available for a suggested donation of £2 from Cancer Research UK shops and online at cruk.org/worldcancerday.

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