Obituary: Alison McCartney

Nicci Crowther,Jane Stephenson
Wednesday 13 March 1996 00:02

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.

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