Alison’s fight against breast and lung cancer

Alison Walker. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
Alison Walker. 'Picture: Neil Hanna
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CLEAN-living, non-smoker Alison Walker would have every right to feel bitter injustice at the double blow that left her fighting both breast and lung cancer.

For having battled through one hellish illness, the last thing she needed was the devastating news that another had suddenly and inexplicably turned up.

Even more cruel was the realisation that Alison – who has never smoked or even spent significant periods of time in the presence of smokers – should be struck by a cancer which is typically, although often wrongly, associated with just that.

Yet instead of raging at her bad luck and questioning ‘why me?’, brave Alison has refused to let her lung cancer battle crush her spirit. “People might think it’s a bit strange,” she says, “but there are actually really positive things that have come out of this situation.

“It’s honestly not all doom and gloom – cancer has actually taken me to places I’d never otherwise have been, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone diagnosed with breast cancer or lung cancer to sit there thinking ‘that’s my life over’.

“Truth is that I felt after the breast cancer that I’d received a second go at life. Now I make the most of every day and take every opportunity I can.”

A niggling cough that refused to go away led to Alison being told in 2011 that she was one of the 5000 Scots diagnosed every year with lung cancer. Yet despite more people falling ill with lung cancer than breast cancer and its poor survival record – almost 4000 Scots die from it every year – the condition lags well behind the other top ten cancers when it comes to research cash and receives just 3.1 per cent of funding.

Regarded as a “Cinderella cancer” and “invisible disease”, campaigners believe that the strong association between smoking and lung cancer means it fails to attract the same sympathetic response as other conditions.

And yet they point out that lung cancer can strike anyone: between ten to 15 per cent of lung cancer patients have never smoked.

Sadly, survival rates for lung cancer have barely changed in the past 30 years, only eight per cent of patients survive at least five years after diagnosis compared with six per cent in the 1980s. Meanwhile, five-year survival rates for breast cancer have jumped from 65 per cent in the 1980s to more than 86 per cent today.

Now, in a bid to explode the myths surrounding the disease and boost research and encourage understanding, the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation has launched a bid to raise £2 million a year over the next five years.

Research analyst Alison, who works for Standard Life, believes the condition is smeared by inaccurate stereotypes which lead to it being regarded as a lifestyle related condition.

“I have never smoked, never lived or worked in a passive smoking environment,” she says. “So when I was diagnosed the first thing I said was ‘but I don’t smoke’. The doctors explained that you don’t have to smoke to get lung cancer. Then my next worry was that it was a secondary cancer related to the breast cancer, but it wasn’t. It was just very bad luck.

“Lung cancer has all these social stereotypes that are wrong. It’s seen as something that affects working-class people who smoke. I feel I have to justify myself all the time by pointing out that I’ve never smoked – when you tell people that you see the look on their face, they don’t get it.”

Alison, of Craigleith, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 when she was still just in her early 30s, and underwent surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“I didn’t present with a lump like most people think you do when you have breast cancer,” she adds.

Instead, she underwent treatment for intraductal papilloma, a benign wart-like growth in breast tissue that can puncture a duct causing bleeding from the nipple. She received treatment for it in her right breast, but when it occurred again in her left breast further checks revealed cancer.

“It was hard, I was young,” she adds. “But I had great care and got better.”

But in 2011 she developed a persistent, niggling cough which refused to clear away even with antibiotics. “I went for a chest X-ray in the September but it took quite a while for it to be diagnosed as lung cancer. I knew if it was a secondary cancer that I was in trouble. But they said it wasn’t, that it was a primary cancer and easier to deal with through surgery.”

She had a third of her lung removed and was relieved to learn that the surgery went well and she would not need further radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

“I’ve had the very best of care,” she adds, “both at the Western, where I was treated for breast cancer, at the Royal Infirmary for my lung cancer, and through the private health care at Murrayfield which I get through work.

“And I can’t praise Standard Life enough. They have been brilliant, paying my salary throughout and giving me time off. That really means so much.”

Now recovered, Alison keeps fit by walking at least an hour five days a week and has travelled the world taking part in cancer conferences and has spoken at high-profile events, on television and been involved in the recent Scottish Government breast cancer awareness campaign featuring Elaine C Smith.

“Having cancer has actually given me a lot of positive experiences,” she adds. “It was very bad luck to get breast and lung cancer, but you just have to keep being positive, it’s what gets you through.”