Visible Women

How Dame Tessa Jowell’s “beautiful death” will benefit thousands of people

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Kayleigh Dray
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Dame Tessa Jowell

Dame Tessa Jowell’s death has been described as a “merciful release for her”, as it is confirmed that her passing has prompted a boost in funding for brain cancer research.

Dame Tessa Jowell, who was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour last May, suffered a haemorrhage on Friday 11 May.

She remained in a coma until her “very, very beautiful” death on Saturday, with her husband, David Mills, and their children, Jessie and Matthew, by her side.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about his wife’s passing, Mills said: “In one way it was a mercy that it all happened very, very quickly.

“It only took 36 hours really, from when she had this haemorrhage to when she died and she was aware of very little during that time, so it was a merciful release for her.

“In many ways, as the wonderful people who looked after her at Shipston Home Nursing, which is our local hospice at home service, said it was a very, very beautiful death… if you can have a beautiful death, she certainly had one.”

Labour politician Jowell, who was the MP for Dulwich and West Norwood until 2015 and a member of the House of Lords, had famously opened up about her illness earlier this year and called for adaptive cancer trials.

If one treatment was not working, she argued, patients should be able to try something different – even if it hadn’t been fully tested. The risks, she said, look different if “the clock is ticking against you”.

Touching upon his wife’s incredible work, Mills added that she had never given up hope of finding a cure and in her final days they had been looking to try to create a vaccine from the DNA of the tumour.

And so he was, understandably, moved to learn of the Government’s announcement that it was doubling funding into brain cancer research in the wake of her death to £40 million over the next five years.

“One thing she said was, ‘If I can just survive two years at a time, or even a year at a time, new things will come along and it’ll give us new hope,’” he said.

“And I think that is, in a sense, the message that is coming out now – that with this wonderful initiative from the government there will be more impetus into the research that’s necessary, and people who suffer from this disease will have a growing chance to survive.”

In January 2018, Jowell got a standing ovation in the House of Lords (see video below) for speaking about her cancer diagnosis, using her platform to advocate for making more cancer treatments available in the NHS.

She said: “In the end, what gives a life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close. I hope that this debate will give hope to other cancer patients, like me, so that we can live well together with cancer, not just dying of it. All of us, for longer.”

The politician went on to meet with Theresa May and health secretary Jeremy Hunt in February, when they unveiled the £45million Dame Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Research Mission, with new government funding of £20million over five years.

That figure has now been doubled with more new money to £40million, which will bring the total research fund to £65million, including £25million from Cancer Research UK and £13million of regular funding.

The UK will also, going forward, host an annual global conference, named the Tessa Jowell global symposium, which is aimed at bringing together clinicians, scientists, and academics together to discuss brain cancer treatment.

And May has confirmed that the government also intends to fulfill another of Jowell’s key campaign aims: the rollout of a better brain cancer diagnostic test, gold standard dye (which is used to identify tumours) to all NHS hospitals.

Currently, the method is used in only half of brain cancer centres in England – and May has said that she hopes the increased availability of the test will help other people survive the illness.

Expressing her hope that this initiative creates a “lasting legacy” for Jowell, the prime minister said: “Baroness Tessa Jowell faced her illness with dignity and courage, and it was a privilege to host her in Downing Street recently to discuss what more we can do to tackle brain cancer.

“I hope that the actions we are taking now and in the future to improve care and research for those confronting a terrible disease will form part of the lasting legacy of an inspirational woman.”

According to the NHS, more than 9,000 people are diagnosed with primary brain tumours in the UK each year, of which about half are cancerous. Many others are diagnosed with secondary brain tumours.

While survival rates are difficult to predict because brain tumours are rare and there are many different types, statistics suggest that just 15 out of every 100 people with a cancerous brain tumour will survive for five years or more after being diagnosed.

“Tessa Jowell was one of those few politicians who could inspire and unite across party lines,” said Hunt, who joined May in announcing the project.

“We were all moved by her bravery and selfless campaigning in her final months, and are determined to honour her life and memory with the action on brain cancer that she fought so hard for.

“At this agonising time, I hope her family can draw comfort from the fact that her legacy will be lives saved and heartbreak averted for thousands of other families.”

The Department of Health said the aim is to increase the research fund each year to pay for emerging research proposals.

“We haven’t had many good quality research projects on brain cancer, and this is what we’re trying to put right with this new fund that we’re announcing today,” he said.

“When it comes to rarer cancers, the issue is attracting the research funding for high quality research projects. And what Tessa identified was that we’re not putting enough into research, which is why what we’re announcing today will, we hope, catalyse more funding into research.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who push for change and make a difference. See more from Visible Women here.

Image: Getty