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World Cancer Day: My passion for research

World Cancer Day: My passion for research

When a routine mammogram showed breast cancer, Melody McLaren relied on 45 years of education, plus her own family's history, to decide about getting involved in research.

Melody, who lives in the Hertfordshire town of Potters Bar, studied Biology at university in California and her interest in genomic medicine sprang from there.

While there, she got a summer job as a lab technician working under Professor Leroy ('Lee') Hood, who later developed the first automated DNA sequencer at the California Institute of Technology, known as Caltech.

Working with Hood, Melody became convinced that the future of medicine lay in genomics and that research in the field was the way forward. She had a more personal reason for getting involved in research, too.

Breast cancer was very close to home for Melody. Her mother Lilia was diagnosed with the disease in 1989. After being in remission following treatment, her cancer returned in 1991 and she favoured going on expensive trips across the border to Mexico for unproven treatments. They did not work, and she died shortly after one final round of chemo in 1993. Melody's paternal grandmother had also died of the disease in 1963, aged 66.

Melody, who was diagnosed in 2014 after having the mammogram on New Year’s Eve 2013, wanted to be involved in research because of what she had experienced both personally and professionally. She explained: “I spoke to an oncologist friend who was based down in Bristol, Petra Jankowska, and she said I should try to get involved in the OPTIMA trial and be treated by an oncologist named Rob Stein, who was based at The Royal Free NHS Trust.

“The first time I met Rob and he mentioned the trial, I said yes straightaway – I told him 'You had me at hello.' He asked me if I wanted to go and have a think about it, but I had already done the research and I knew I wanted to be part of it.”

The OPTIMA trial has three groups of people, or cohorts. The control group are given  chemotherapy and hormone therapy, the current standard NHS treatment. The other two groups have a genomic test, using a sample of breast cancer tissue removed during surgery, which decides whether they have chemotherapy plus hormone therapy, or hormone therapy alone. There is more information about the trial and its design here.

Melody was chosen for chemotherapy and hormone therapy. It was tough, but with the support of friends she came through it and was officially discharged in 2019.

The year was marked with sadness, however, when her husband Ian died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

The two had met in 1984 after Melody was invited to travel to Europe by a toy company after winning the United States Hula Hoop Championship. Among other things, Ian helped Melody fall in love with playing the piano again by getting involved with his jazz band. Melody began to learn the piano at the age of three – her mother Lilia was a music teacher – but she fell out of love with classical playing by the age of 15. 

Since Ian's death, Melody has become a still more passionate advocate for research. As well as OPTIMA, she is taking part in two other clinical trials and has recently been appointed a Research Champion for CRN North Thames.

Research Champions are patients, carers, members of the public, people who have taken part in a research study before, as well as those who haven’t. Something that they all have in common is that they are passionate about getting more people involved in research so that we can develop better care and treatment for everyone.

Research Champions volunteer their time to help spread the word about health and care research to patients and the public, and especially those groups who are currently less likely to take part in research. They also help research and healthcare staff understand more about the experiences of those who take part in research.

Melody said: “When I was asked to be a Research Champion, I wanted to do it. I am a busy person, but I felt I wanted to make time for it as it is important.

“I’m passionate about cancer research and clinical trials generally; why wouldn’t you get involved?

“Even in a pandemic, safety standards and protocols for research participants are excellent. There has never been a greater need for clinical trials – think of COVID! The search for a vaccine has been sped up by people who have taken part in clinical trials.”

• To find out more about the NIHR's Research Champions programme, visit this website: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/patients-carers-and-the-public/i-want-to-help-with-research/research-champions.htm

• To find out more about clinical trials taking place in your area, visit the NIHR Be Part of Research website: https://bepartofresearch.nihr.ac.uk/