Class Notes

From clinical trials to catwalks

Dalia Ismail (Biomedical Science, 2010)

Alumna Dalia Ismail (Biomedical Science, 2010) is a senior clinical trials manager, specialising in oncology. A breast cancer survivor herself, Dalia is keen to improve treatment for women under 40 and has taken part in several awareness campaigns. Here, she writes about her interest in clinical trials, her own breast cancer journey and gracing the catwalk of Breast Cancer Now’s 2023 fashion show.

‘Studying pharmacology at King’s, I was always fascinated by clinical trials and the key role they play in improving medicine. Being at the forefront of research and innovation felt like an exciting career path.

‘A month after I graduated, I started my first job in clinical trials. Over the next 12 years I worked on oncology trials at clinical research organisations, academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies, including Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (where I’ve worked as a Global Clinical Trial Manager for five years).

‘In January 2022, at just 33 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and put my career on hold to work on saving my life. Over the next year I underwent surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatments. I will continue with treatments for the next five years to reduce the risk.’

Researching the risk

‘While researching my diagnosis and options, I realised that only 4 per cent of breast cancers are diagnosed in women under 40. At 33 my risk was less than 0.5 per cent. I had no risk factors, so I rarely checked myself, and it was by chance that I came across a lump in my breast.

‘As most breast cancers are diagnosed in women over 50, research to help inform decision-making is mainly tailored to this age group. Younger women are also more likely to have more aggressive cancer types and be diagnosed later due to lack of screening; this can lead to negative outcomes.’

Rebuilding my life beyond cancer

‘2023 has been a year full of juxtapositions. While I have spent much of the year rebuilding my life, I’ve also had some amazing experiences.

‘In April 2023, I took part in the Breast Cancer Now fashion show at the Science Museum, alongside 23 other models living with or beyond breast cancer. It was amazing taking to the catwalk and an honour to be asked to be the model speaker and to share my story, which reached over 52,000 people.

‘I’ve also been able to travel again, have been interviewed on BBC Radio, been featured in newspapers, written several magazine articles and spoken at an event for the cancer charity, My Cancer My Choices.

‘October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year (October 2023) I took part in a breast cancer awareness campaign for clothing brands Loungewear and Raishma to help raise money and awareness.’

What’s next?

‘In August 2023, I consented to a clinical trial (called TRAK-ER). The trial will be run by the Royal Marsden/Institute of Cancer Research, where I used to work. A third of breast cancer patients will relapse with stage four (incurable) cancer. The trial aims to determine if blood tests can detect earlier relapse and whether treatment can delay or stop cancer coming back.

‘I am also conducting research exploring psychedelics for therapeutic use in cancer patients, as part of my MSc (Clinical Trials) dissertation project.

‘I hope to use my knowledge of research and my journey with cancer, where my two worlds have met, to raise awareness and further research to improve breast cancer outcomes for younger women. I want to encourage self-checking and being aware of what is normal for your body.

‘I believe it is important for patients to advocate for themselves and for their voices to be empowered. Receiving my own diagnosis reinforced this.’