Q&A with Professor Marianne Nicholson

Marianne Nicolson

Read more about one of Clan's essential board members and how they have the Power to Help!

Marianne Nicholson has over 25 years’ experience in oncology and is a leader in cancer research in both the UK and across the globe. An honorary professor of medical oncology at Aberdeen University, Marianne has led clinical research for patients with many types of cancer and brings to the Board a lifetime of oncology practice, teaching and study.

Tell us a bit about yourself, who you are, where have you come from etc.?

I’m Marianne Nicolson, I was born in Morayshire and I'm the third out of four children to my mum and dad. They were just great people who gave us enormous amounts of confidence, love and support all the way through.

I went to school Logie School which had about 60 pupils in it, and I then went to Forres Academy. I had decided at about the age of five that I wanted to do medicine so that was always the trajectory. I left school after fifth year, took a gap year where I worked for six months with the game keepers (which was great) and then had six months as an auxiliary nurse in the Grantown-on-Spey hospital.

I then went to Edinburgh University, graduated from there and worked in the City for two years before I came to Aberdeen for two years working as a medical registrar.

I went down to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, where I was an oncology trainee for nine years. At the end of that the option was either to stay in London or to go elsewhere so I came up to Aberdeen as a consultant in 1994. I started off doing a ridiculous number of different tumour types but my main passion was lung cancer. I built up a programme of research and a big clinical practice in lung cancer in Aberdeen and worked very happily here with lots of great friends and colleagues until 2018. I then retired and have since been involved with Clan’s board and I’m also involved with the Leanchoil Trust and now interestingly am working one day a week in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness doing Melanoma. My husband is still working in Aberdeen and our daughter, Eva has just started a traineeship as she just qualified as a lawyer. So, a great life; I feel very very lucky.

Tell us about your experience in Oncology and cancer research and what made you want to work in that field?

My Uncle Jack had developed cancer when he was only 48, I was only 10 and I always remember his legs got very swollen, he was just really poorly and unwell so then I thought at that point there needs to be something more that can be done. So, even at the age of 10, that kind of affected me. Also, my maternal grandmother had breast cancer and she sadly died of that when she was only 59 so I think again these two things really impacted the fact that cancer wasn't all that well managed.

It was interesting, because when I was working in the paediatric cancer and leukaemia bone marrow transplant unit, the whole ethos was of togetherness and support along with furthering knowledge and researching to generate evidence to improve things. This just clicked with me and I just knew as soon as I was there that this was it forever.

When did you become a board member with Clan and tell us what it’s been like?

I’ve been a board member at Clan for almost 3 year and it’s brilliant. I was asked if I was interested in becoming a board member after going to lunch with Jamie Weir, who used to be a professor of radiology in Aberdeen. He is my good friend and his wife Lesley, who is also on the board and is a retired GP. I remember that Colette, who is Clan’s CEO was also there. We just had a really informal chat and I remember I knew about Clan as many of my patients had benefited from their services. I was pleased when I was asked to become part of it. I think one of the things that was lacking at that time was a Board member with specific oncology experience so I felt I could bring that. I felt I could also learn an awful lot from it as well.

The meetings are not too frequent, they're formal enough that we get through the work but informal enough that there's always time for a discussion. The committee is made up of some fairly impressive business people which is an area that I’m not familiar with. I just know about cancer so it seems to be a good balance of expertise.

I think the key thing is that we always know that Clan will get in touch if there’s anything you feel that any of the board members have to offer. So, support, good communication and a kind of a mutual respect is for the key things about being a board member.

For you, what is the most important message that Clan conveys?

I think what Clan does extremely well is demystify the cancer diagnosis (and what happens during that time) whilst offering support to family and friends and the cancer patient themselves all the way through it. Clan always offers information to a level that's required and that’s wanted but never to push anything on people. When you're diagnosed with cancer, it can be seen as a defining part of somebody's life but it’s very much part of everything else that is going on.

Clan gives people the tools to deal with what can be a frightening part of their life but also allows them to get on with everything else.

Another important aspect is that it's not just Aberdeen, it’s the fact that Clan is spread throughout other communities, which is important for people having to travel long distances for support.

How do you feel about Clan’s future?

I think that Clan’s future is secure, there is no question that; there is a huge need for Clan and the need is not going to go away.

I think that the good thing about Clan is that it is responsive to people and to their needs but equally, what I really think has been fantastic in recent years, is the way that Clan has integrated more widely. I don't even mean geographically, I actually mean socio politically so Clan is now involved in government bodies, it’s known to other agencies as a main actor in the cancer forum so that if people needed opinions on something about what happens when people are diagnosed with cancer and how supporters is best delivered, Clan is there.

Clan is also now becoming involved in prehabilitation where we want to help optimise people's fitness and ability to tolerate any of the treatments they are going to be going through. The fact that Clan is there right at the start with an emotional, physical and pragmatic approach to optimising people’s fitness for what happens next is absolutely important.

So it’s all very exciting!

Who is you hero?

I need more than one here! When I think about the people who have had huge impression on my life I think of my primary school teacher, Jean Maciver, who was a very tall glamorous redhead. Jean was very dramatic, she ran the Moray music festival and she encouraged kids onto the stage. She gave us all from the age of five enormous confidence in presenting ourselves to an audience. I used to lecture a lot when I was working, to audiences’ of 2000 people, sometimes at international meetings, and Jean gave me that confidence to step out there, take a deep breath, look them in the eye and engage to get your message across with confidence.

The other person I enormously admired was Professor Tim Macelbane, at the Maritime Hospital. He was just one of these true polymaths [a person who knows a lot about so many different subjects]. You could speak to him about architecture, anything in oncology, anything about life and he was supportive. He just made sense of everything. To again, have somebody else who just made sure that I was on the right track was so important to me.

Obviously, my parents, husband, family were all fabulously important but the two professionals Jean and Tim.

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