Tameside woman who has battled five different cancers in 35 years pays tribute to Christie doctors

Irene North was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1987 and has been under the care of Manchester’s acclaimed hospital The Christie ever since.

A Greater Manchester pensioner who has fought an extraordinary 35-year battle against cancer has paid tribute to the many doctors and researchers who have cared for her - including a father and son.

Irene North, from Tameside, was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1987. She has been under the care of Manchester’s acclaimed specialist cancer centre The Christie ever since and has been diagnosed with five different cancers during her marathon health ordeal.

She said the staff at The Christie have given her hope through all these years of living with cancer and offered her heartfelt thanks to them.

The doctors and researchers who have looked after her throughout the four decades have included consultants Tony Howell and his son Sasha.

Irene North

What did Irene say about first going to The Christie?

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Irene, who is now 71, spoke about her first experience of going to The Christie and being told she had cancer.

She said: “When I first got cancer, I was terrified. I was told I needed to go to The Christie and back then, just the name of the hospital felt like a death sentence,

“Once I was through the door and started to talk to people, I realised that it wasn’t the place I or my family feared. The staff are so caring and compassionate, and their expertise is always plain to see.”

The retired NHS phlebotomist, who has a daughter, two sons and six grandchildren, worried most about her family when she was first diagnosed.

She said: “My mum had died of cancer at the age of 41 when I was six years old and all I could think about was how my children would cope if the same happened to me. Because Mum died so young it was always at the back of my mind that I might get cancer.”

Irene North at home

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Following treatment during 1987 and 1988, Irene was declared cancer-free. However, over the years Irene has been diagnosed not only with breast cancer and secondary breast cancer but she has also been treated for cervical cancer, skin cancer and pancreatic cancer, the very early stages of which were detected by a routine scan in 2014. Thankfully this meant it was successfully treated without her requiring major surgery.

Irene has also been given to give something back to The Christie and the community of people living with the disease. She threw herself into fundraising for cancer-related causes, along with her husband Jack, and also helped to establish the Withington/Christie breast cancer care group.

Being cared for by two generations of the same family

One of the most remarkable aspects of Irene’s story is that two of the consultants she has been seen by over the years are father and son duo Tony and Sasha Howell.

Professor Tony Howell was Irene’s oncologist in the 1980s and ‘90s and through the work of the Withington/Christie breast cancer care patient support group she got to know him well.

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She said: “Tony and I became friends, and he supported the group frequently. He came along to talk to us as cancer patients about the challenges and developments of breast cancer treatments.

“Over the years I got to know most of the breast care team at The Christie and many of them joined us to share their expertise with the group.

“I was getting calls from so many patients who wanted someone to talk to. People were not only having to cope with cancer but the fallout such as losing jobs, losing their homes, having mental health issues, and relationship difficulties.”

Dr Sacha Howell, his father Professor Tony Howell and Irene North

Irene gave up the group when her husband died following a brain haemorrhage in 1995 but says she looks back on it as one of her proudest achievements.

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However, that was not the end of her association with the Howell family.

She said: “In 2008, I walked through the door into a consulting room with my daughter Tracy and was surprised to see a spitting image of Tony Howell. It was surreal. Sacha explained that Tony was his dad.

“They are both very similar in how they treat patients. They both really listen to what you have to say, and I always felt like they had my best interests at heart.

“I was aware that Tony was doing pioneering research on breast cancer treatments. I think I was one of the first patients to try the drug Zoladex as a breast cancer treatment, this was normally a hormone treatment for prostate cancer, but it was being tested to see if it would help breast cancer patients too.

“Tony also put me on Tamoxifen which was still a very new cancer drug back then. It’s great that Sacha is also involved in cancer research now.”

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How has Irene fared living with cancer and its various treatments?

Although Irene knew there was always a risk her cancer could come back, and in 2007 received the bad news that she had secondary breast cancer and it had spread to other parts of her body, she says she still feels very fortunate that many of the treatments she has been given over the years have worked for longer than anticipated.

She said: “I was on Letrozole for nearly 14 years which was way beyond the expectations of success, I was lucky as it kept the cancer stable for so long. But eventually, cancer spread into my chest, lungs and lymph nodes.

“I was offered a type of chemotherapy called Palbociclib combined with a hormone injection monthly. I was told they might only keep the cancer away for 12 months but combined they worked for almost two years.

“I’m now on another hormonal drug. Cancer has spread to my spine and there is more of it in my lungs and on my chest. The doctors have helped me maintain hope. That’s why the work The Christie does to discover new treatments is so important for patients like me.”

Irene admits that living with the disease for so long has been far from easy, but suggested that the hardest part of her marathon cancer battle has been the effect it has had on her family.

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She said: “Coping with cancer is hard and living with it for 35 years has been tough. One of the hardest things for me has been hair loss. I’ve had so much cancer treatment now that I know my hair will never grow back.

“It affects confidence so much and negatively impacts the social interactions that are really needed when you are low.

“I feel that sometimes the burden of living with cancer is worse for my family than for me. I know my family worry a lot. I try my very best to be positive because that’s better for all of us. I get on with life and do all I can to live as normal a life as possible.”

How has The Christie changed over the years?

Irene reflected on the ways The Christie has changed over the several decades since she first walked through its doors.

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These included the growing numbers of people she has seen there having treatments for cancer, the increasingly-regular check-ups she has received and the fact that the outreach services mean some of her treatments have in recent times been given at home.

She said: “A lot of my treatment can be given by The Christie staff in local health facilities or even in the comfort of my own home with the nurses coming to me.

“That has made a huge difference to me, particularly during the pandemic and I’m very grateful. This team is another example of the wonderful work The Christie does.”