Adam Blain’s three children know that he has terminal cancer. In fact, they are so familiar with the reality of his illness that it has become “boring background noise,” he says. “Long may it remain so.”
Blain was once a lawyer at a top London firm, but he has always been honest, and he makes no exception when it comes to speaking publicly about his brain tumor.
“For me, there’s no other option — I don’t want to dress it up,” he says.
“If nothing else, my kids shouldn’t complain that it’s a shock when I’m on my deathbed.”
At age 44, Blain was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive cancer, and underwent major surgery to have a pear-shaped tumor removed from his brain days later in May 2014.
The average life expectancy after such a procedure is only 18 months, but more than seven years since the diagnosis, Blain is “still here, still telling jokes” and writing his third book in a series of dark comedy memoirs about the experience.
He is therefore ideally placed as one of the many non-experts opening a public exhibition this month at the Francis Crick research institute in London.
Outsmarting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma will be an immersive exhibition exploring the latest cancer research taking place in the Crick, an impressive open space designed with collaboration and creativity in mind.
An image of a cervical cancer cell, featured in Outwitting Cancer: Making sense of nature’s enigma at The Francis Crick Institute (Photo: Electron Microscopy STP/Francis Crick Institute)
To bring some of that research to life are a series of short films, each documenting an encounter between a researcher and a non-expert or layperson.
]Their candid interactions help to illustrate the underlying theme behind the exhibition: that cancer should be an open discussion, without a doubt.
Meeting with Simon Boulton, senior group leader at the institute, Blain asks, “Why are you using worms in your research?” It’s not a silly question: some scientists use mice, others use fruit flies. What the hell do worms have in common with humans?
The answer, Boulton explains, is that worms go through their life cycles very quickly — from a single cell to a full-grown adult in 36 hours — allowing researchers to see genetic changes happening quickly.
In another short film, broadcaster Alix Fox interviews Karen Vousden, chief scientist at Cancer Research UK (Cruk), and senior group leader at the Crick, to unravel questions such as, “Is cancer contagious?” and “Why don’t elephants get cancer often?”
Adam Blain, who has a brain tumor, takes part in an exhibition on cancer at the Francis Crick Institute in London
If the exhibition leaves visitors with one message, Vousden . tells l, it is that “cancer is no longer the taboo topic it once was”.
“We’re taking a difficult topic, one that people often shy away from, and open it up so they can understand more about what cancer is and what it means. We hope people will see it as serious, but also hopeful and positive,” he said. they.
When we consider that one in two of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives, it’s amazing how little most of us know about the disease and how little most of us want to talk about it.
Recent warnings from Cruk about the delay in treatment due to Covid-19 have undoubtedly contributed to fears surrounding a cancer diagnosis: in June 2021, the number of patients waiting six weeks or more for tests was six to eight times higher than in 2019.
For experts like Vousden, these grim numbers are yet another reason why we should all talk much more openly about cancer.
“Understanding is such an important part of managing and approaching cancer,” she says.
“We know that people are often reluctant to go to their GP with a problem, and it’s often because they don’t understand what’s happening to them and they’re scared.”
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Cancer is complicated, “much harder than rocket science,” Vousden jokes, but she hopes the videos show how “you can have a conversation with scientists. We are not these aliens, we are humans and we want to share what is interesting and the good things that are happening.”
And there are plenty of things that visitors to the exhibition can be positive about.
Another “non-expert” in the spotlight is BBC journalist and news presenter George Alagiah, who is living with colon cancer.
He meets with Vivian Li, a stem cell and cancer scientist, to learn more about her work creating mouse organoids, or mini-organs, as a shortcut to study how cancer develops in the human body.
These organoids open up new possibilities for personalized treatments for cancer patients — the idea is that a particular drug can be run through a sample of the patient’s own DNA cells in the lab to see how effective the treatment will be.
This will help counselors prescribe more targeted treatments tailored to each patient and reduce the risk of side effects.
Breast cancer cells in an image from the exhibition Outwitting Cancer: Making sense of nature’s enigma (Photo: Electron Microscopy STP/Francis Crick Institute)
Meanwhile, new genetic sequencing technologies are unraveling some long-standing mysteries about tumor evolution — for example, how and why they spread faster in some patients than others.
Thanks to these studies, “we can track the evolution of emerging cancer cells and find evidence that the cancer is coming back in blood samples before it shows up on a CT scan,” said Charles Swanton, a research group leader at the Crick and chief physician for Kruk.
There are also other reasons why experts would like to generate more public interest in cancer research. Cancer charities, which fund much of the research taking place at institutions like the Crick, have suffered as a result of Covid restrictions.
For example, much of the revenue Cruk receives comes from its high-street stores, which were forced to close, and massive fundraising events like Race for Life, which were canceled or postponed.
“All of this means we can ultimately fund less science,” Vousden warns.
Brain tumors like Blain’s are an area of research that’s already disproportionately underfunded, something he’s speaking out about, taking the opportunity to raise awareness through his books and public appearances — but all in good spirits.
Blain’s first book, Pear Shaped, even received critical acclaim from the likes of former US Senator John McCain, whose wife Cindy laughed to describe it as “much-needed medicine.”
“There’s no situation where humor can’t be dug out, not even brain cancer,” Blain says.
“We want as many smart people to do as many interesting innovative things as possible, and so to make people laugh, relax about it — anything that can start the dialogue and get people interested will be a good thing.”
Outsmarting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma is a free exhibition running from this Saturday to July 15, 2022 (Wednesday to Saturday) at London’s Francis Crick Institute