Sandra Dick: We need new front in disease war

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MAN goes to the doctor. “Doctor,” he says, “I’ve not been well. Please tell me that it’s not cancer.” The doctor looks grim. He shuffles through his notes, peers over his spectacles and replies: “No, you’ve not got cancer.”

The man feels the weight of the world lift off his shoulders. Now free of the dreaded ‘C’ word, he can breathe again. The birds start singing, a brass band strikes up with a jaunty rendition of Congratulations and he figures that he’ll be around to see his kids grow up after all.

“Unfortunately, it’s not cancer,” adds the doctor, and suddenly the world stops revolving again. Unfortunately? “Yes, unfortunately. Because cancer we can often cure. What you have, we can’t.”

Bang!

Granted, liver cancer is a determined little bitch that puts up a pretty vicious fight. But when tennis ace Elena Baltacha announced she is fighting liver cancer, there were those among us who recognised immediately that this was a second kick in the guts for a woman who has known since she was 19 that she was already in the fight of her life against an incurable illness.

Like my husband – the man I’ve just mentioned whose doctor gave with one hand and took away with the other – she has PSC, primary sclerosing cholangitis. One of those slippery mystery autoimmune conditions of which there are plenty, that pop up out of the blue, that baffle scientists who try their hardest to find out why and then terrify families because all they want to know is what’s gone wrong and please God it doesn’t happen to the kids, too.

Mum-of-two Baltacha would have known for 11 years that PSC would cause her liver to fail and she’d need a transplant to survive. She’d have popped daily tablets to keep it at bay, knowing that while her risk of cancer of the colon, bile duct, pancreas and gall bladder was raised, the bigger worry was how long she had before she’d be hoping for a donor organ.

And having an auto-immune condition like PSC means being tortured by the possibility of a genetic link. Indeed, recent studies suggest there may be a genetic disposition – leaving patients living with the hope that their children won’t also one day find themselves in a stuffy surgery, face-to-face with a doctor, wondering just what it is they have got.

That’s a lot for anyone to live with.

Any kind of cancer is, of course, awful. And it deserves every single penny of money for research which flows into its relatively large pot.

But if only a bit more money could somehow find its way into the hands of scientists whose calling in life is to try to untangle the mysteries around autoimmune conditions like PSC and their possible genetic links – perhaps one day even finding a cure – then some of us might feel that they can look to a future armed with more than simply “hope”.