Obituary: Alison McCartney

Alison McCartney was a successful woman in a man's world, described by a colleague as "one of the best ophthalmic pathologists in the country". She will also be remembered for the campaign she spearheaded in the last 18 months of her life, to get people to listen to the needs of women with advanced breast cancer, after she had herself become ill.

Born Alison Elliott, she was educated at Girton College, Cambridge and then qualified as a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. By 1993 her work on eye disease, first at Charing Cross Hospital, then at Moorfields, was so well regarded that she was headhunted to set up a new centre of excellence at Guys' and St Thomas's Hospital.

In May 1994, she discovered she had breast cancer, which had already spread to her liver and bones. As a doctor she knew her prognosis was poor. She longed to talk to someone else in the same situation and was keen to communicate what it felt like to have a "life sentence" hanging over her. Alison McCartney's struggle to get better support for women with advanced breast cancer became the main focus for the Channel 4 film, Alive and Kicking, which recorded her progress.

On a visit to a medical conference in San Francisco, she met the psychiatrist David Spiegel at Stanford University and women from one of the cancer support groups he had inspired. Spiegel had discovered that it wasn't just quality of life that was improved by the regular, supported contact provided by such groups, but that life expectancy could increase as well.

Alison McCartney returned to Britain convinced that similar support groups would work here. A request for funds from the Medical Research Council was turned down, but with support from colleagues at St Thomas's, she finally set up a group which first met last May. She arrived with a particularly gooey Italian cake to make the occasion special. "The feeling of mutual support is almost palpable", she wrote afterwards. Nine months later, the group still meets regularly, a model for what can be achieved with a bit of bloody-mindedness. It was during this time that she said she "rediscovered women" and the support and friendship they can give each other.

After the transmission of Channel 4's film during Breast Cancer Awareness Month last October, Alison McCartney received over a hundred letters from families who could relate to her experience. She continued to campaign for improved services, lobbying Parliament and speaking at meetings. Channel 4 was keen to build on the initiative which she had started, and held a workshop in January for women with secondary breast cancer, their carers and the relevant charities. Although her health was deteriorating and she was undergoing further chemotherapy, she was determined to be there, and turned up looking as elegant as ever, in a stylish wig and a dramatic pair of earrings.

Working with Alison McCartney was never dull, and she loved the limelight. On one occasion she was wearing a red wig when a traffic warden asked to see her disabled pass. "This isn't you," he said, peering at the photograph. Alison whipped off the wig to reveal her bald head. "Is that more like it?" She prided herself on her professionalism, three times struggling up and down stairs with a walking stick to a studio in Wardour Street, in central London, to record new commentary.

Many people who came across Alison described her as brave, but she herself was irritated by this tag. She felt she had no choice in the matter - she was just cramming as much as she could into the time she had left. When we met for lunch or dinner, she would talk about redecorating the house, a new velvet tunic she couldn't resist or a party she was planning for her friends. She kept working at St Thomas's part-time until a few weeks before she died, but tried to keep more time than usual for her husband Peter and her children Alex, Max and Nancy. Being a realist, she knew she couldn't stop the tumour from killing her, but she was determined that it shouldn't ruin what remained of her life.

Nicci Crowther and Jane Stephenson

Alison Caroline Elliott, path- ologist, campaigner: born 31 March 1950; married 1975 Peter McCartney (one son, two daughters); died London 8 March 1996.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Co-ordinator - Birmingham - Permanant

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Head of Maths

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Head of Maths position at a prestigious ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week