The pioneering father and son at Manchester's world-famous Christie Hospital

PUBLISHED: 01:16 29 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:04 20 February 2013

Anthony and Sacha Howell

Anthony and Sacha Howell

It's not unusual for a father and son to go into the same business but it's rare when they are both top medics specialising in the same field. Janet Reeder went to meet them<br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

Father and son Anthony and Sacha Howell are at the forefront of breast cancer research at Manchesters world-famous Christie Hospital. Their pioneering work is helping to save hundreds of lives.

When we meet theres a palpable sense of excitement in the air - and no, its not because they are being interviewed for Lancashire Life - it seems there has been a recent breakthrough. It may change the way we treat breast cancer - thrilling to feel they are on the brink of a new discovery.

Its quite complicated, says Anthony, the youthful-looking father of the pair.But if you have a cancer cell next to a normal cell we show how they communicate. Its extraordinarily interesting because if we stop the communication between the normal cell and the tumour cell, the tumour cell starts dying that is an extraordinary finding and makes you believe that there will be new ways to treat breast cancer. Most of our treatments are targeted at this cancer cell but now with this combination, we think its highly likely well see new treatments coming through.

Both father and son, who live close to each other in Didsbury, travel the world in their quest to vanquish the disease and have a global reputation as a consequence but it is a relief to discover that both have a wonderfully relaxed bedside manner.

Anthony, whose official title is Professor of Medical Oncology, reveals just how much he empathises with patients. Its a horrible disease but from a professional point of view both they admit breast cancer fascinates them.

Says Anthony: I originally trained as an endocrinologist but I was interested in breast cancer. Thats what I wanted to study so I came to the Christie and have been studying it ever since. I gradually worked through the wards and ran chemical trials and lab work. I tend to lead some of those. Sacha is one of the clinical scientists but, he says turning to his son with a laugh, Your story is more interesting because its done despite me...

Im not sure its done despite you, says Sacha. Well, its not easy being in the same place as your dad, says Anthony. I think you have to be very brave and you have to have a sense of humour and youve also got to be very good at what you do.

Explained Sacha: Luckily we share the same passion for discovery. However it did get to the stage where whenever we went out to dinner or had a glass of wine together we talked about breast oncology. But its not competitive. We have a common goal. Now tennis against him, that IS competitive.

Anthony sums up their working relationship thus: Were basically dedicated to two things. One is obviously curing more women; the other is trying to prevent the disease occurring in the first place.

Clearly his father has been an enormous influence. Hell be embarrassed but I have a huge amount of respect for him and undoubtedly hes one of the big reasons Im in breast oncology, says Sacha,Christies Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology specialising in breast cancer.

A lot of the progressive treatments in oncology had really been in breast cancer. Its been the most exciting to be involved with for many years.

Anthony agrees: The advances are considerable and I guess we have been involved in these. For example, the death rate for breast cancer has gone down by half, that is a great achievement. Part of that is through screening and part through the kind of treatment. So that shows real progress and thats happened over my lifetime. I came here in 1980 and the survival rate started improving in 1988.

I think thats absolutely right of course, you were a prime mover in getting Tamoxifen into the clinic, observes Sacha.

And thats really been one of the major changes in improving survival and I see myself carrying on that work.

Adds Anthony: Our passion is research and making outcomes better. Its rather beautiful to be able to do that.


One life - and im going to live it!

Im Debbie Jackson from Maghull, aged 52 and Im married with three sons. Ive been retired for three years from my job at a secondary school working in administration, where I also held responsibility for first aid and was affectionately known as Matron!

Im taking part in the Breast Cancer Care fashion show on October 5 at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, alongside 23 other models who have all been diagnosed with breast cancer. I applied for several reasons - mainly to show women that they are still the same person even after theyve had breast cancer, and so I can give hope and inspiration to others. This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight a fantastic charity, raise awareness and fulfill a dream.

My breast cancer journey began in March 2006, 21 years after my dad was diagnosed with the same disease at the age of 63. I had been breast aware from my mid teens as I had two benign breast lumps removed when I was 15 and 19.

However, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 when I was 47, after finding a lump in my left breast. It was a huge shock and I immediately flashed back to memories of other members of my family whod been diagnosed with cancer and what theyd been through. I clearly recall coming home the day of diagnosis to a very busy house. My sons and dad were there for dinner, and at that moment I gave in and fled next door to my good friend Sue, where I just broke down.

There is never a good time to get cancer and but all I could think of was how do I tell our sons. My main concern was for my family. I had a lot of support from the hospital and doctors, but they needed it too. At the time my eldest was away at university, the middle one was just about to start and my youngest was doing his GCSEs.

However Im incredibly lucky to have such a wonderfully supportive family and we remain a very close unit. My husband Mark has been amazing. Cancer has inevitably tested us but its brought home the fact that we are very fortunate to have a second chance and we take nothing for granted. When I was diagnosed I was so uncertain about my future, but Ive now seen two sons graduate and my youngest fulfill his ambitions of becoming a landscape gardener. I feel so fortunate to have shared in their achievements and hope to continue to do so for a long time to come.

My outlook on life is good and Id say to anyone that positive people generate positive thoughts. My family, friends and neighbours have been with me all the way; laughter and tears have been plentiful and their kindness has been overwhelming. My life is different to how it was before and simple things that I was always too busy to notice now make me smile!

My treatment, a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction, took just over a year and on my 50th birthday I had a big celebratory party for family and friends. I asked for donations instead of gifts and we raised around 800 for the breast unit at Fazarkerley Hospital in Aintree where I was treated.

There is a saying one life, live it and I am certainly trying to do that! By stepping onto the catwalk in front of everyone including family and friends I will have a chance to say: Im still here, looking great and feeling feminine!

My aim is to raise as much as I can and you can find out more about me and Breast Cancer Care by logging on to my just giving site at or the Breast Cancer Care fashion show at

For confidential support and information if youve been affected by breast cancer, call Breast Cancer Cares
free Helpline on 0808 800 6000 or visit

About Breakthrough

Breakthrough Breast Cancers North West appeal aims to raise 5 million over the next five years for the research centre based at the University of Manchester, next to the Christie Hospital, Withington.

For details about Breakthroughs fund-raising events and their important research work visit

The print version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Lancashire Life

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