Professor Anne Charlton fundraising for Cancer Research Campaign, one of the forerunners of Cancer Research UK.

Professor Anne Charlton was a much-loved colleague who blazed a research trail in cancer education and smoking prevention in schools.

Anne, who died in April aged 84 after contracting COVID-19, was a passionate advocate of the importance of public knowledge about cancer. She combined academic rigour with a down-to-earth and empathetic approach and her contribution to where we are today – in speaking in an open and informed manner about cancer and in driving down youth smoking rates – cannot be overstated.

Anne was a naturally inquisitive child, a trait that followed her throughout her life – from her early interest in botany research to her training and career as a biology teacher in schools in Barrow-in-Furness and Manchester.

It’s a testament to Anne’s energy and enthusiasm that she began her career in cancer research at the age of 39, focusing on cancer education, smoking prevention and the impact of cancer on children.

Cancer education

In 1974, Anne left teaching to take up a research post with the Manchester Regional Committee for Cancer Education. Cancer was still a taboo subject for many at this time, and the fear and misunderstanding it evoked often led to delays in seeking treatment.

With the first of many grants from Cancer Research Campaign, a forerunner of Cancer Research UK, Anne began to survey children’s and teachers’ opinions about cancer. The work led to a master’s degree and a lectureship at Manchester University and set Anne’s course for the next few decades.

Anne went on to explore the possibility of introducing cancer into the curriculum of secondary schools. This project opened up a whole new area of work and led to the development and rigorous evaluation of resources for schools, colleges and teachers – including teaching guides like ‘Cells, Cancers and Communities’ and the ‘Topic of Cancer’.

Through this work, hundreds if not thousands of teachers and education systems around the world were inspired to teach science to children in new ways. And it not only changed the conversation about cancer in schools, it also opened up discussions about smoking.

Children and smoking

By the early 1980s, Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) was beginning to fund research into young people and smoking, and Anne conducted a major survey of children and young people in northern England. The research provided a wealth of information about the factors that influence children to take up smoking, revealing that a quarter of 15-16 year-old girls were already regular smokers.

With further funding from CRC, Anne began to develop new approaches to teaching about cancer, health and tobacco to help delay uptake of smoking and support young smokers to quit.

Anne’s group developed and evaluated many resources for schools and teachers, including a smoking prevention programme for 9-10 year-old children, parents and teachers and a stop-smoking course for young people aged 15-19 years, which was based on the identification of 9 different types of smoker.

Her studies also highlighted external influences that reinforced children’s smoking, including tobacco industry sponsorship of Formula 1 racing and snooker, which contributed to the big push to transform UK government policy to de-normalise smoking.

Impact of cancer on children

With the rapid progress in treatment of many children’s cancers, increasing numbers of children were starting school for the first time or returning to the classroom after a cancer diagnosis.

Working closely with children’s cancer specialists at The Christie in Manchester, Anne initiated a detailed study of the experiences of a small group of children and their parents and teachers. This research revealed a number of physical, psychological and academic issues that could impact a child’s return to the classroom.

The success of this pilot led to a much larger study, which showed that teachers needed specific information about a child’s cancer, their treatment and the type of problems that might arise to fully support the child as they came back to school. Following on from this research, a resource for teachers, ‘Welcome back’, was developed by colleagues in Bristol and Exeter and widely distributed.

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which Anne’s work changed cancer education and conversations about young people and smoking. But her impact extended far beyond her research projects – she was not only a world-renowned expert in her field, she was also a mentor to many researchers, thanks to her undeniable strengths in communication and networking.

Her zest for living was irrepressible. She never retired, continuing to travel, publish and present her research, and to enjoy Shakespeare plays and flower shows to the end of her life.

A good friend and colleague to many, Anne was always ready to offer encouragement and support. She will be greatly missed.

Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s former director of tobacco control and Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s former director of cancer information

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