AN American research paper written in 1978 sums up the state of breast cancer treatment at that time.
Women diagnosed with breast cancer were given three options –mastectomy or removal of the breast, mastectomy with chemotherapy or mastectomy with radiotherapy. The research paper noted it was written at a time when there was “dissatisfaction about the treatment of primary breast cancer”, and when “physician attitudes are very sensitive and react quite rapidly to new recommendations”.
It was in that year that John Forbes, Alan Coates, Michael Green and Raymond Snyder established the Australia and New Zealand Breast Cancer Trial Group, headed by Forbes, which took as its starting point that breast cancer research would guide the future direction of treatments.
It went on to be a leader in global breast cancer research, and Forbes by 2014 and 2015 to be acknowledged as one of the worlds most influential scientific researchers. Some of his, and the group’s, most significant work is in the area of the drug tamoxifen as both a primary treatment of some breast cancers, and also a preventive drug for women at high risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Professor Forbes has remained clear about the aim of the group and his significant personal commitment. They were always working towards ending breast cancer deaths, he said. On Sunday, after a celebration of his achievements at a dinner in Newcastle on Friday night, he predicted that aim would be achieved in the 2030s.
In Australia we are accustomed to the view that sportspeople are role models. We think nothing of our prime ministers lauding the Australian cricket team or tacitly approving sickies on the day we win an international yacht race. Australia’s sporting achievements are a salve to the national psyche.
But it is the achievements of medical scientists like Professor John Forbes that not only change –and save –the lives of countless Australians, but change the course of medical history. Those achievements need to be just as suitably lauded by our community and political leaders.
At a time when science, facts and truth are being constantly challenged by politicians and commentators, it is important that we recognise the extraordinary contribution of our brilliant minds like Professor Forbes.