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‘My mum was diagnosed with cancer when I was five, and research let me have 10 extra years with her. Now I work to save people’s lives’


Meet Alan Parker. He’s dedicated his life to helping people fight cancer after he lost his mum to the disease when he was still a teenager.

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Professor Parker works as a researcher at Cancer Research Wales, and it was his experiences growing up that inspired him to want to help find ways to save people’s lives.

He lost his mum, Susan to cancer when she was just 50 and he was just 17.

Professor Parker’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was only 40-years-old but, instead of focusing on the years cancer took from her, he cherishes the ten years cancer research gave to her to spend with him as he grew up.

Thanks to the advancement in health systems, medicines and treatments, the family were able to share ten more Christmases together and these are memories he holds close to his heart.

Professor Parker said: “It was an extra 10 years we would never have had.

“I can only remember bits about it. I can remember her coming out of hospital.

“She was in remission for 10 years, and it came back. She died very, very quickly then.

“The prognosis for people diagnosed with breast cancer now is so much better than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Professor Parker pictured with his mum, Susan, when he was growing up

Professor Parker decided to share his story as a part of Cancer Research Wales’s A Christmas Story campaign whereby people are being asked to share their stories about how they and their loved ones have been affected by cancer over the years.

The aim of the appeal is to offer hope and strength to support people impacted by cancer, and Professor Parker wanted to highlight just how much the research helped his family when he was growing up.

He was only seven-years-old when his mother was told she had cancer so, for him, the extra years spent with her meant he was able to get to know who his mum was as a person, and he also had the opportunity to create more treasured memories as he grew older and entered his teenage years.

“For me, it gave her a chance to live,” he said.

“You get to know your parents a lot more in that period of time.”

Speaking about what the festive season was like growing up, he said: “Most of my memories of Christmas as a child are exactly as you would expect – excitement, presents and food.

“We would always spend Christmas morning at home opening presents, then go to my grandparent’s house near Warrington for Christmas dinner, and to spend the rest of the day with the extended family.

“Of course it was all about overindulgence and – thinking back – I have no idea how we managed to consume so much food.

“The whole family would squeeze round the table in my grandparents dining room – in my mind I can clearly see us all sitting around the table wearing the paper Christmas hats from crackers and all with huge plates filled with turkey dinner.

“Laughing and joking and spending quality family time together. Happy times.

“Christmas is a particularly difficult time of year, as I can’t help but think how sad it is that my mother never got to meet her grandchildren and enjoy these special moments.

“However it’s important to look at the positives which, for me, is creating new memories from watching my own kids enjoy the magical time of Christmas, like the ones I shared with mum.”

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Although Professor Parker always had a keen interest in science throughout his school years, he said his experiences growing up formed a part of the reason why he went onto work in cancer research.

He specifically works by using viruses to search for treatments for cancer, and the team focus on the development of new treatments for cancers.

Research is based largely on the use of viruses – understanding how they infect healthy cells to make us sick and using that information to engineer viruses that can infect only cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed.

In a nutshell they develop “smart viruses”, which hunt out and destroy cancer cells and, as a consequence, help the immune system to “see” the tumour.

It was the researchers working alongside him that found the trigger for the rare blood clots with the AstraZeneca jab that is being administered in the fight against Covid-19.

The research being carried out by people like Professor Parker also means that future cancer treatments can be made safer.

Speaking about his mother’s diagnosis, he added: “There is no doubt that this significant life event shaped my choice of career, as I strive to create a better future for cancer patients like mum.

“Cancer Research Wales funds some of the most cutting-edge cancer research, and best of all it is taking place here in Wales.

“The support of the people of Wales has been integral to helping me develop technologies that have a real prospect of making a difference to patients in the next few years.

“It’s never easy to share my Christmas Story, but I hope my personal tale gives strength to the thousands of people living with cancer and their families.”

Professor Parker said there is lots of “really good” research being conducted in Wales, which is why he wanted to share his story.

Without cancer research a lot of people’s Christmases would be different, and he wants to promote the sort of essential work being carried out on Welsh soil.

He recalled fond memories of spending Christmas Day with his family, wearing party hats and making the festive season as loving and fun-filled as possible. His goal is to ensure this positive picture is able to be painted for as many people as possible whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Professor Parker said: “Cancer Research saves lives. Without cancer research a lot of people’s Christmases would be different.”

To find out more about A Christmas Story – The Christmas Appeal, visit the website where you can read people’s stories and make a donation. You can also donate to Cancer Research Wales via the justgiving page.

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