One of the great pleasures of swanning round giving talks on biology and stuff to anyone who’ll listen is meeting an amazing range of wonderful folk with a seemingly limitless number of interesting and clever questions, asked either at the end of a lecture or, quite often, when they queue up afterwards to raise personal points or chat about their own experiences. Wide-ranging though the topics are, there’s one word I can’t recall coming up even once. No surprise really. It’s a very rare disease, even though it’s a kind of sub-group of the lung cancers that kill more people every year than any other type – over one and a half million world-wide in 2012 when there were 23 new cases in every 100,000 people. In the USA the incidence is 38 per 100,000, in Australia it’s 27. The very rare form is called mesothelioma – that’s the one where there’s almost always a history of exposure to asbestos. Rarely mentioned though it is, mesothelioma came up after a lecture I gave last week in the sumptuous premises of the Union, Universities & Schools Club, just up the road from Circular Quay in Sydney, when a gentleman from the audience revealed that his wife had contracted the disease and described how he was seeking the next round of treatment options for her. He was kind enough to say that he was a follower of my blog but he hadn’t trawled sufficiently far back to track down a piece I wrote about a lady called Heather Von St. James. To my considerable embarrassment, I couldn’t on the spur of the moment recall what I’d called it (What’s it all about? Serves me right for trying to be clever with titles: the idea of this one was convey Heather’s determination to have a life with her children and husband in spite of being dealt the really rough hand of mesothelioma). What is it all about? In contrast to the overall incidence figures for lung cancer, mesothelioma afflicts just under one white American in every 100,000, so it is indeed pretty unusual. The UK has the highest rate (top of something then!) but Australia comes second with 2.9 new cases of mesothelioma per 100 000. Since the early 1980s over 10,000 Australians have died from the disease and the rate is still rising. It’s predicted to start falling after 2020 but, even so, a further 25,000 Australians are expected to die from it over the next four decades, the majority being men. Now Sydney, as you may recall, is the largest city in Australia and it’s in New South Wales, so you might predict that, if you were going to run into mesothelioma anywhere outside the UK, Sydney would be the spot. But why? Well, NSW was the first state in Australia to mine asbestos and it produced the bulk of the chrysotile (white) and amphibole forms. Asbestos of whatever type is now classed as carcinogenic but it was not until the end of 2003 that the use of all forms of asbestos was banned in Australia. The hazard remains, however, because of the widespread use that had been made of asbestos for construction, both residential and commercial. The risk can be seen from the near doubling of mesothelioma incidence in NSW between 1987 and 2006, with an even bigger increase being seen in women – attributed largely to second-hand exposure. And the freaky happening? The very next day after my conversation at the Universities Club, and completely out of the blue, I received an email from Heather about what she describes as her ‘life’s mission to educate people about this deadly disease’. Having told the story, perhaps the most helpful thing I can do by way of supporting this remarkable lady is to spread the word of her initiative by advertising the web site.
Regular readers (how freely we use that expression!) will know we were due to depart for the Southern Hemisphere and so might guess from the title of this piece that we’ve at least got as far as Singapore. But actually we’re not as unworldly as you might suppose and in fact we’ve made it to beautiful Brisbane and even given the Global Leadership lecture that was the prime mover for the trip. And jolly good it was to be able to speak in The Customs House, a wonderful building that in 1889 when it was opened must have looked a bit like a cathedral – albeit dedicated to mercantile trade and the enlargement of the British Empire. Today it’s Corinthian columns are dwarfed by the constellation of fantastic skyscrapers that now make up downtown Brisbane – which makes it a really special place to step into. It was also a great privilege for me to talk to a full house that was so appreciative I think I was still answering questions two hours afterwards when the staff were on the point of carrying us outside to continue our discussions on Queen Street while they went home.
Even if you’ve never been to Australia you’ll know it’s a land of surprises and while I was still thinking nothing could upstage my evening in Customs House, next morning I found myself in front of 200 students at the QASMT school in Toowong, a delightfully hilly and leafy suburb of Brisbane. The somewhat daunting plan was to talk to them for an hour, persuading them that biology is fantastic and telling them a bit about cancer. Daunting hardly does it justice in that I’d never tried to keep that many school kids entertained before (not even when, for a mercifully short time, I was actually a teacher in Liverpool did I get confronted by classes of that size [as an historical aside, the first time I walked into a school classroom as a teacher I found before me 50 (exactly) nine year olds, of mixed ability and desperate backgrounds. So nowadays, with even the biggest UK class size being seemingly 30, the teaching game must be a doddle].
My teaching experience could hardly be more different to what greeted me at the school on Bywong Road. Entry is via the school’s exam and they follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme which means they teach a broad curriculum, albeit with a strong emphasis on science (their acronym stands for Queensland Academy for Science, Mathematics and Technology). The buildings are extensive, new, include (as their blurb puts it) university-standard science laboratories and, all told, provide a wonderfully attractive environment. However, what made my visit the highlight of Australia so far were the pupils. Favourable impressions are certainly helped by the Australian predilection for school uniforms and at QASMT all students are required to wear the Academy’s uniform. And very smart they look too. Without being regimented, they appear comfortable, neat and completely professional. I know that probably sounds like an old fogey talking but, if so, we have to conclude that there are a few of those determining school policy in Australia – and long may they prevail!
I’m not sure whether my 200 were entertained but boy were they attentive and full of great answers as we went along. After my main talk the head girl and boy made a delightful presentation after which – perhaps the best bit of all – I sat for an hour or so in the sunshine chatting to a charming and wonderfully polite group of boys and girls who were just full of interesting, thoughtful and clever questions.
I arrived at Bywong Road in a state of some trepidation but left marvelously uplifted, feeling much privileged to have spent a few hours in the world of these inspiring young Australians.