Morven's story

Dr Morven Brown, 45, is a health psychologist and childhood cancer researcher at Newcastle University. Here, she tells us about being diagnosed with cancer as a 23-year-old, and how her own experiences have influenced her work and interests.

I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma after finding a lump on my neck. I noticed it when I was driving back to Glasgow, where I was in my third year of university studying psychology. I’d been to visit my parents in Edinburgh and, when I called them to let them know I was home safely, I told them about it. They were both adamant that I went to get it checked out as soon as possible.

I went to see my family GP who told me that if anything changed, such as if the lump grew or another one appeared, then I was to come back. I remember not being too worried. However, it was only a fairly short time before I noticed the lump had grown and so the GP took a blood test, and I was quickly referred for biopsies. I was fortunate in the sense that my diagnosis was quite straightforward, and everything moved quite fast. There were no long waits for tests, and I also hadn’t noticed any other symptoms such as night sweats or weight loss.

Strangely, it was my mum who told me I was ill. I appreciate it must be a very difficult thing for a parent to do, but to this day I don’t understand how it was her who told me and not a doctor. She did her best and I remember feeling very calm about it all. However, I really don’t think I fully realised the gravity of it all. I was admitted to hospital to receive my first chemotherapy and it was only when I noticed that I was sharing a room with two other girls, who had both lost their hair, that I really realised it was cancer I had. The girls were both lovely, but on hearing their stories and what they had been through I remember feeling pretty scared.

As my cancer was caught early – being diagnosed stage 2a - my treatment wasn’t as intense as it could have been if discovered later. I had six cycles of ABVD chemotherapy, but didn't require radiotherapy, surgery or a bone marrow transplant that a lot of people with cancer do.

There were tough times – I was upset to lose my hair, was worried my fertility would be affected, was of course worried I would not get better, and I had to pause my studies and my job - but I tried to focus on the small things and what made me happy and that really helped.

I also decided that I wanted to keep living on my own and not move back to my parents. I think this was hard for them at first, but they understood it was important to me that I kept my independence and freedom and lived my life as I wanted to. I also had some really close friends, and my boyfriend at the time, for support and that was massively important.

About a year and a half after finishing treatment, I decided to I wanted to travel. The idea was to go to New Zealand for six weeks, but I ended up staying almost a year. I got a job and learnt to snowboard. I just had the best time, and it was so good for me to just get away and have an adventure. I also liked being somewhere where nobody knew my past and I was no longer the girl who’d had had cancer. However, I was lucky to find a doctor out there who was happy to check me over as I wasn’t able to attend my follow-up appointment back in Glasgow. After New Zealand, I then went to live in Australia for a year.

My early experiences of research

When I was in Australia, I realised I really needed to begin thinking about a career. I decided to come back to do a master's in health psychology. Health psychology covers a lot of areas that really captured my interest, such as inequalities in health and health behaviours, and how illness impacts on a person. After I got ill, I became really interested in other people’s experiences of health and wellbeing, and particularly cancer. I knew my experience of cancer, but what was it like for other people? So, my master’s dissertation involved talking to young people who’d had cancer about their experiences of diagnosis and treatment.

About six months after my masters, I got a position at Newcastle to analyse survey data collected from a big European bone tumour study. I quickly met some wonderful people, who became mentors to me. They listened to my interests and ideas, encouraging me and nurturing me as a researcher. I don’t think I’d be here 15 years later had I not met these people who were so kind with their time and prepared to help me, which is really important to developing young researchers.

My research

What happens after cancer treatment interests me greatly, and a lot of my research focuses on survivorship and how we can help those who have had cancer as a young person have as fulfilling a life as possible as an adult. It was only through my work in cancer research that I became aware that, as a young cancer survivor, I was at a high risk of heart problems because of the chemotherapy I received. I wondered whether other young cancer survivors knew about these risks, but also what, if anything, could be done to reduce the likelihood of these health problems occurring.

Research has shown that childhood cancer survivors are more likely to develop serious heart problems than young people who haven’t had cancer, but it also shows that being physically active could help survivors’ heart health.

Despite this, we know they do less physical activity than their peers who haven’t had cancer. Therefore, finding a way to encourage and support survivors to be more physically active is of paramount importance.

Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) funded one of our projects - BEing Active after ChildhOod caNcer’ (BEACON) - which looked at how we could develop an intervention (a package of activities and strategies) to support and empower survivors to be more physically active which in turn would benefit their health. A lot of my work involves talking to people, which, importantly, ensures we really understand the problem (in the case of BEACON, the factors which either help or hinder survivors’ physical activity), and in turn, can properly inform what such interventions should look like.

The funding from CCLG was so important because we’d perhaps not be able to access the money to do this foundational research elsewhere. It enabled us to really explore survivors’ views and experiences of physical activity and investigate what could help them be more active, and take it further by designing and developing something that has the potential to make a real difference to survivors’ health. People have a life to live after cancer and if we can help them be happier, healthier, and have a better quality of life, then that really shows the value of our research.

Research and me

Research is really interesting. I enjoy thinking about a problem and trying to understand what's going on - what do people think about it, why do they do the things they do - and then trying to find ways to help as a result. A lot of my ideas come from my own experiences, and I think my background does help. It perhaps gives me a different perspective; a deeper depth of understanding having been in some of those situations myself.

I'm extremely proud of what I do, and I feel very privileged that people choose to talk to me about their lives.