Whitechapel lab to research East End's high throat cancer rates

Research at Whitechapel's Blizard centre gets £2.6m boost

Research at Whitechapel's Blizard centre gets £2.6m boost - Credit: QMUL

A £2.6m cancer centre is being set up in a Whitechapel laboratory to help find out why more people are affected by mouth and throat cancer in east London than the national average.

The centre, which is being run at the Queen Mary University’s Blizard research institute next to the Royal London Hospital, hopes to establish who is at risk of cancer and why.  

Blizard centre medical research at Whitechapel

Blizard centre medical research at Whitechapel - Credit: Morley von Sternbergt

The money has been raised by Barts Charity for research into why the East End is more prone to cancer affecting the mouth, skin, lungs and cervix, particularly in the Asian community.  

The rate has risen by a third over the past decade to 21 in 100,000 people in Tower Hamlets.  

But it can hit anyone, even the fittest. Steve Bergman was fit and healthy at 56, with a good diet and a keen cyclist and runner when he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in 2016.  

Steve Bergman at 56... recovering in hospital after oral cancer op

Steve Bergman at 56... recovering in hospital after oral cancer op - Credit: Bergman family

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“It took me by complete surprise,” he said. “I went into hospital for a routine operation but had to have radical surgery to remove a massive growth.

"I woke up to find I had a tracheostomy fitted — then had six weeks of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiotherapy.” 

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It had a psychological and emotional impact which affected Steve's daily life, he said. 

“A sudden surge of panic would run through me that went on for several months,” he recalls. “I couldn't swallow and completely lost all sense of taste.”  

Disfigurement after Steve's operation for throat cancer

Disfigurement after Steve's operation for throat cancer - Credit: Bergman family

The Bart’s Charity cash now means oral cancer expertise can be brought under one roof at Whitechapel in order to run clinical trials with patient groups and build a human tissue bank to improve knowledge and understanding. 

Queen Mary University’s oral surgery Professor Paul Coulthard said: “Oral cancer is strongly associated with social deprivation. This centre will help us develop a much better understanding of who is at risk and why and to improve detection, diagnosis and treatment.” 

Treatment for those who do recover can be harsh and can leave a devastating impact on the person's ability to eat, drink and even speak.

However, Steve is over the worst and now has his life back.  

Steve Bergman today... free of cancer

Steve Bergman today... free of cancer - Credit: Bergman family

“Everything has returned to fully functioning,” he said. “I’ve been clear of cancer for nearly six years.” 

More than 70,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer every year in the UK.

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