The WM Interview I Don't Remember Ever Not Wanting to Be a Doctor; Sickness and Suffering Have Touched Professor Ilora Finlay's Life Both Personally and Professionally, but the Champion of Palliative Care Is Proof That Passion and a Positive Mindset Are the Best Kind of Medicine, as Catherine Jones Discovers

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), March 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

The WM Interview I Don't Remember Ever Not Wanting to Be a Doctor; Sickness and Suffering Have Touched Professor Ilora Finlay's Life Both Personally and Professionally, but the Champion of Palliative Care Is Proof That Passion and a Positive Mindset Are the Best Kind of Medicine, as Catherine Jones Discovers


She admits to being "naughty" at school, gave her university peers haircuts in exchange for drinks at the bar, thinks nothing of cooking for 100 guests, and says teaching medicine in French is "quite fun".

This is the world of uber-achiever Ilora Finlay, a consultant at Cardiff's cancer centre, Velindre, and a cross-bench member of the House of Lords.

Past president of the Royal Society of Medicine, she is an honorary professor and former vice dean of Cardiff University's School of Medicine, who in 2001 was made a life peer as Baroness Finlay of Llandaff.

This academic powerhouse - who enjoys the House of Lords because they don't "waffle" - has the mix of steel, compassion and optimism one might expect from a world authority on the care of terminally-ill cancer patients.

Paliative care has been Ilora's job and her passion for more than three decades, but it was brought even closer to home when her mother Thais - named after the opera by Jules Massenet, and whom Ilora discribes as "amazing" - was diagnosed with the disease.

"About three years ago she was in a hospice and was dying and the medical director said to me 'How are you going to cope with your mum dies?'," the 52-year-old remembers.

"But with her symptoms well-controlled, and because all aspects were looked at - she had very good care - she is now living independently at home.

She never would have believed she could have such fantastic days. She absolutely adores her great-grandson.

"My father, Charles, died of a brain tumour when he was in his early sixties," she continues.

"He was a neurophysiologist and worked on mapping out areas of the brain back in the 1940s. He worked with Jack Eccles who went on to get the Nobel Prize.

"Dad got a brain tumour that went through the very areas he had mapped out. He was aware, even before the neurologist. It was very sad. He could map the march of it but we looked after him at home.

"The best bit of advice I've ever had came from my father," she adds.

"'If you want to change the world you must get to the top and not lose your principles on the way.' It's the most powerful piece of advice I have ever been given."

She may not quite have changed the world yet, but Ilora has done more than most. In 2003 the mother of two, who lives in Cardiff with her dermatologist husband Andrew, proposed a bill to ban smoking in public buildings in Wales three years before it was implemented - a trail-blazing move she says was inspired by her patients.

"I've seen people die of cigarette-related diseases from the day I qualified and before," she says.

"I've seen people lose their lungs because of arterial disease. It's tragic to see so many people die of lung cancer, some when they are very young, and it's always pathetic when they say 'I have just given up' and it's too late, you have got your cancer there now. Or seeing people who gave up 20 years ago and then they get cancer.

"I went into palliative care because I wanted to improve the lot of dying patients. When I was a junior doctor I saw people dying appallingly badly with incredible pain, with terrible symptoms and nobody knew what to do.

"Patients were isolated, frightened, often put in side rooms. People really didn't know how to manage them. I was so angry. This was bad care.

"In the last 30 years we have seen a dramatic change in the way that people are treated.

They are spoken to openly and honestly. They are told about their illness, families are involved. The symptom control is enormously better."

Fierce in her belief in the power of pain control and a sympathetic ear, Prof Finlay - who is working with the Welsh Assembly Government to improve palliative care across Wales - also has strong views on euthanasia.

"It's sad that we have had so much in the media about assisted suicide without representing that we can die with dignity and peace without having to cut your life short. …

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The WM Interview I Don't Remember Ever Not Wanting to Be a Doctor; Sickness and Suffering Have Touched Professor Ilora Finlay's Life Both Personally and Professionally, but the Champion of Palliative Care Is Proof That Passion and a Positive Mindset Are the Best Kind of Medicine, as Catherine Jones Discovers
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