By Kathleen McFadden
Alison McCartney was shocked in May 1994 when she was diagnosed with cancer. She had gone to the doctor to have a suspicious abdominal lump examined, and the tests showed that an undetected, malignant breast lump had spread to her liver, adrenal glands, and bones. Alison was a pathologist, and she was married to a general practitioner, but she had no idea where to find information about her disease. She also longed for someone to talk to — a person who shared her condition and could empathize with her physical and emotional difficulties.
She began researching her disease and happened across the work of an American psychiatrist, Professor David Spiegel, who worked with women with advanced breast cancer. Spiegel’s research showed that terminal breast cancer patients gained significantly from psychological treatment in the form of support groups. Not only did such support enhance the quality of their lives, but preliminary results also indicated that they might even live longer.
Excited by these findings, Alison traveled from London to Stanford, California, to meet with Spiegel and his group. When she returned home, she was determined to establish a similar group in London where there were no support groups for women with secondary cancer. As simple a prospect as this sounds, Alison faced a number of obstacles, not the least of which was resistance from the medical establishment. Some doctors dismissed the idea as morbid; others said it would not work because British women would not talk about their emotions. Alison was finally able to persuade Rosemary Burch, the breast care nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, to give the idea a try. Nine women met during that first session, and its participants came to consider the group an important and vital part of their lives.
During her illness, Alison kept a video diary that became a television documentary called ‘Alive and Kicking.’ The film in turn led to group meetings, teleconferences, and volunteer training in England — all springing from Alison’s initial efforts to create a support structure to enhance the lives of women with terminal cancer. Alison was born on March 31, 1950, and died on March 8, 1997.
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