Ten years ago wild horses would not have got me anywhere near an exhibition called Cancer Revolution: Science, innovation and hope. I’d have walked on by, fingers stuffed in my ears, and found something else involving puppies or ponies. I grew up in the Sixties, when cancer – like divorce – wasn’t mentioned by name; it was very much “pas devant les enfants” and aunts elaborately mouthing words behind our backs.
Now, nine years on from an ovarian cancer diagnosis, I get it. I never liked the word “remission” and don’t love “living with cancer”: “alive” will do nicely, thank you. But the fact is, that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer – someone every two minutes in the UK – which means that it will touch the lives of pretty much all of us at some stage.
The fact that 50% will survive for 10 or more years (by 2035 it’s hoped that that will be 75% of us) is down to jaw-dropping achievements in research and innovation, and it’s absolutely right that the exhibition, at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum and touring to London next year, gives a whole room to the giants of medicine who watch over us: the clinicians and doctors who are keeping one step ahead. They are finding ways of tracking rogue cells with liquid biopsies; of creating viruses to seek out and explode cancer cells; of collecting and training patients’ immune cells, then returning them, tooled-up, to obliterate the enemy. The astonishing Galleri blood test, trialling now, will detect signs of up to 50 types of cancer even before symptoms are apparent.
The exhibition is a bold and brave initiative, situated in the industrial basement space of the museum, its exhibits divided by gauzy, hospital-like curtains. The science is leavened with art installations, photographs, personal histories, interactive screens and items of special value to cancer patients. I had never known that chemotherapy stemmed from the discovery that gassed WW1 soldiers had lowered levels of white blood cells: some comfort to be had there.
I’d have enjoyed more detailed notes, but we’re a nation of viewers and listeners now, rather than readers, so the exhibits have sountracks and explanatory labels are kept short. The murmured buzz of hospital noise around the chemotherapy chair took me back to snoozing whilst the drip went in.
I have mixed feelings about patient stories and keepsakes: selfishly perhaps, I didn’t much want to join groups and talk about cancer, and when treatment was over I gladly burnt the wigs. Everybody deals with it differently – some go for parties and pink wigs, others hide with a book.
It’s an odd thing that the day a health suspicion becomes hard reality can bring a inexplicable sort of relief. Fear of the unknown is one thing but the actuality is easier to deal with and I never had any problem doing what I was told by experts. Here’s a rum thing: cancer may be the worst time of our lives but it can also be a time (for some people the only time) when the patient is centre of attention, listened to, cherished.
It’s anticipated that families and schools will visit the exhibition and there’s plenty to engage children, from the tumour on a dinosaur bone and the cosy-looking cage which houses the doomed laboratory mice, to a lumbering radium teletherapy apparatus from the 1930s, ancestor to the Cyberknife and resembling a medieval trebuchet. There’s an interactive screen to debunk myths (stress does not cause cancer, apparently. Hmm) and computer-game type images showing a tiny cartoon doctor virtually entering a cancer cell and examining it from all angles. And if it encourages more children to explore science then hurrah for that.
Oct 22 until Mar 2022 scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk