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Race for Life: Real Life stories . . . Doing it for Dad

Heartbroken at losing her beloved dad to leukaemia, Alex Bruna vowed to do everything she could to prevent others suffering like he had. Now a pioneering cancer researcher in Cambridge, Dr Bruna shares her story ahead of Race for Life

Alex Bruna was just a teenager when her dad asked her a question that would change her life. Suffering from a rare form of leukaemia, and finding the treatments not only failing, but making him incredibly poorly, he turned to his family and asked desperately: “Don’t they know what to give me?”

That question haunted Alex as she watched her dad fight the disease for nine years, only to lose his battle aged just 48 – and she became determined to find an answer.

“I was about 13 when my dad was diagnosed with leukaemia. He was given three months at first, but he lived for nine years. He was in and out of hospitals for most of my teenage years,” Alex recalls, sadly. “He was given seven or eight types of treatment. They were trying to help him but the treatments he received almost killed him a couple of times. It made me realise that treatments are not always beneficial and can cause harm. And for some people those treatments worked, but not for my dad. From that I understood some people with the same type of cancer will live and some will not. I wanted to understand why that was.”

Dr Alex Bruna, picture by Mark Hewlett (11807514)
Dr Alex Bruna, picture by Mark Hewlett (11807514)

Now 43 and a doctor, living in Cambridge with her two boys, Alex has made significant steps in understanding exactly that as she is funded by Cancer Research UK to find out why some patients fail to respond to the treatments that work for so many others. Alex is based at the CRUK Cambridge Institute in Professor Carlos Caldas’ lab, which famously made a major breakthrough in recent years, discovering that breast cancer has at least 10 different genetic subtypes - each subtype has a distinctive genetic and molecular fingerprint and each has different weak spots which can be targeted.

Carrying out pioneering work, Alex and her team have created a living cancer cell library in mice, meaning they are able to better preserve the tissue samples and increase the accuracy of research results. And they can start afresh with each tumour, allowing them to see how the patient would respond to different drugs, including those not available for those with early stage cancer.

Though her ground-breaking work will make a difference to thousands of sufferers, Alex recognises that there’s still so much more to discover about cancer, which is all around her.

“A good friend of mine died of Gliobastoma; there were no options for him. My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer – ten years ago she would’ve been told to go home and make a will – but they knew that Herceptin was the right drug for her,” Alex says. “This has shown me again how important personalised treatment is – how we must find the right treatment for each patient. Also, until we know how many types of cancers there are and understand them, we will struggle to make the next step.”

Fund-raising is vital to continue this life-saving work and Alex, who is originally from Spain, has been busy doing her bit, most recently scaling a mountain in Barcelona.

“I decided to do my climb because I tried climbing for the first time last year and I felt anxious and very unsure of everything,” she explains. “It made me think about how a cancer patient must feel at diagnosis and made me want to do more to help with fundraising and a climb seemed the right way to do it.”

Alex has also been busy getting sponsored to run Race for Life, Cambridge, with her sons. Taking place at Jesus Green on July 7, Race for Life attracts thousands of runners, and this year the event is open to men and boys, alongside women and girls.

The money raised is so important as Cancer Research UK is reliant on donations and Cambridge is a major research hub for the charity; last year it invested over £54m in local research.

Looking forward to ditching her lab coat for a running vest, Alex says: “I have run Race for Life in the past a number of times. It is an overwhelming and emotional day. You see the back signs and why people take part. It really gets to me, I find it very emotional.”

Cambridge has 5k and 10k route options at its Race for Life on Sunday, July 7 on Jesus Green, taking in some of the city’s most impressive sites. Find out more at raceforlife.org

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