Dame Tessa Jowell, the former Labour cabinet minister who died from an aggressive form of brain cancer on Saturday, will be remembered for her work as an inspirational politician, and in particular for her championing of the successful bid for the 2012 London Olympics.
She will, however, have a further and lasting legacy – her impact on the treatment of cancer sufferers all over the world.
In a moving speech to the House of Lords in January, she described her own experience with cancer, acknowledging that it was terminal, and quoting the last words of Seamus Heaney, “do not be afraid” – from a text message he wrote in Latin, “noli temeri”. That speech was recognised at the time to be an extraordinary occasion, if a profoundly sad one. What gives it lasting significance was her call for better international cooperation for the diagnosis and treatment of cancers.
She spoke about the Eliminate Cancer Initiative, and explained that this programme (founded by Australian philanthropists Andrew and Nicola Forrest) had three main objectives.
First, she said, it aimed to link doctors and patients across the world to a clinical trial network. Second, it would speed up active trials. Third, it was seeking to build a global database to improve patient care.
What cancer patients wanted, she said, was to know that the latest science was being used and available for them, and that there was a community around them to support them, one that was “practical and kind”. She was concerned “that this new and important approach might be put into the too difficult box”. But she had great hope, as cancer patients collaborated and supported each other every day. “All we now ask is that doctors and health systems learn to do the same.”
There are several messages here that will resonate with anyone who has experience of a serious disease, or has close contact with people who have. Most immediately, there is great scope for closer global cooperation. Doctors do collaborate across national boundaries and have for many years. But health systems, which have just as much to learn from each other, sometimes continue to live in national silos, insisting that their approach is better than that of other countries, whatever the evidence to the contrary.
A second is that better data is part of the key to better health outcomes. Establishing a database to guide medical professionals towards global best practice is one way of ensuring that countries, hospitals and medical systems that achieve the best results can spread their knowledge and expertise around the world. There can be no place for a “not-invented-here” attitude.
Third, coping with serious disease is not just about technology, though that is crucial. It is also about mutual support, the point so moving made by Dame Tessa – that people “can live well together with cancer, not just dying of it”. The wonderful, shining, example of this thought is the hospice movement, pioneered by Dame Cicely Saunders with St Christopher’s Hospice in the London suburb of Sydenham in 1967, a concept that has now spread around the world.
Dame Cicely, the founders of ECI and now Dame Tessa have all in their different ways demonstrated that individuals can make a difference. It is a message for humankind.
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