Photo of a scientist working in a lab

Credit: Imperial science imagery

So, we’re coming to the end of 2020 – and what a year it’s been. It’s been one of the most challenging periods in our history as a charity, and certainly my hardest year as a chief executive.

We had to face some very hard truths throughout the course of this year. That the pandemic had made our mission of beating cancer harder to achieve, as people with cancer found it harder to get the tests and treatment they needed. That progress in cancer survival could go backwards, for the first time in decades. That the disruption to our finances would force us to cut millions from our research. And that I would have to tell our brilliant team the horrible news that we would have to make over 500 roles redundant.

We began 2020 with so much hope, which was rooted in the excellent research that we knew would be published throughout the course of the year, and the exciting work we had planned. COVID-19 changed so much of our plans, but it didn’t change everything. In this dark year, there were still pockets of light.

In a year dominated by vaccine news, long awaited trial results confirmed that the HPV vaccine could reduce people’s cervical cancer risk. And our scientists in Glasgow made strides towards more tailored treatment for pancreatic cancer, where survival has remained stubbornly low. We’ve also seen many of our lung cancer projects bear fruit this year, from our ambitious TRACERx project to the results from one of the world’s largest precision medicine trials. You can read more highlights in our 2020 round up post.

We also laid the foundations for more exciting results in the years to come when we partnered with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to build on the success of our Grand Challenge initiative and stimulate even more innovative research collaborations.

So while I’ll be glad to leave 2020 behind, we should also recognise how much progress our fantastic research community, staff team and volunteers still made, despite the challenges all of us faced. COVID-19 did slow us down, but we never stopped.

We all learned lessons this year too. I learned how strong our community is when we speak with one voice, to keep cancer high on a busy agenda, and how determined every one of us is to adapt, keep going and keep making an impact even in the toughest circumstances. I’ve never felt prouder or more privileged to lead Cancer Research UK.

And, for that reason, I do have cause for optimism as we move into 2021.

We are learning more about how to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer every day, and we are sowing seeds now that will pay dividends in the years to come. We are having to make some very difficult cuts to our research, and we undoubtedly will lose precious momentum – but we still have a hugely exciting pipeline, and we’re expecting some fantastic results next year which we know will move us closer to our mission of beating cancer.

I’m also hopeful that this year has done more than any other to prove the value of medical research. Just one year after the virus was first detected, we had several vaccines with great results coming out of clinical trials. This has shown what’s possible, with collaboration and collective focus – and I hope this has demonstrated to the public and to governments around the world that science, healthcare and public health are all worthy of investment.

While much of the progress we’ll see in 2021 is still being written, there are a few things that I’m looking forward to already. Having challenged the world’s brightest minds with 9 of the toughest challenges in cancer research, we’ll be shortlisting teams in April. And 5 years since we set our first round of challenges, we’re anticipating some big results from our 7 international teams, who are tackling problems such as how to prevent unnecessary breast cancer treatment, or understanding if the bacteria in our gut could help treat cancer.

And speaking of anniversaries, in November we celebrate 5 years of the Francis Crick Institute – a hub of innovation and the home of some fantastic scientists, including our TRACERx team.

But while these individual events bring me cheer, my hopes for the future are much bigger than any single day. I am optimistic because I know how many people share our vision – and it’s a vision full of promise and hope. Where a cancer diagnosis is not something to be feared. Where treatments are precise and targeted. Where cancer is detected earlier and often prevented. Where cancer survival is a given, and loved ones survive and thrive.

Thank you to everyone who has joined us in 2020 – as a supporter, a volunteer, a member of our staff team or as a part of our research community. All of you have played a part in our progress this year. Because of the strength of our community, I’m going into 2021 with confidence that we will recover, that we will stay at the forefront of the global fight against cancer and that we will keep making transformative steps in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the years to come.

Michelle Mitchell is Cancer Research UK’s chief executive

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