'My illness isn't a barrier' - woman completes PHD while undergoing cancer treatment

Amber was given just two years to live. Credit: Bristol University

A paediatric anesthetist finished her PHD at the University of Bristol six months early - despite fighting cancer.

Dr Amber Young, 53, was just two weeks into her Fellowship when she was given the devastating diagnosis that she had secondary cancer in her liver and bones.

Amber was told she would die without immediate treatment and was quickly prescribed a grueling course of chemotherapy and radiography.

But despite receiving the life-altering news, Amber, who works at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children’s burns unit, had made PHD plans and says she was sticking to them.

“If anything, it made me more determined than ever to get my PHD done.

"The PHD gave me motivation to leave a legacy. Being a physician and looking after children with burns is the best thing in the world. I wanted to contribute to the improved care of these patients through research to improve evidence available for clinicians.”

Dr Amber Young with a paediatric burns patient. Credit: Bristol University

Amber’s PHD involved undertaking an international survey with 126 patients and 700 clinicians from 77 countries around the world to enhance treatment and recovery for burns victims. 

Amber said: “It definitely helped keep my mind off my treatment. It gave me focus.

“I’d even take my laptop into hospital with me and work on my PHD while receiving chemotherapy. The nurses thought I was mad.”

Amber, who had been treated successfully for breast cancer in 2007, had to navigate the pressures of further education with outpatient clinics, scans, and the ‘terror’ of awaiting results.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support of the university and my mentors who backed me all the way from the very beginning,” she added. “And I’m so glad I did it because it’s the best academic achievement I have undertaken.”

Other pillars of strength have been her husband Norman Heckington, 58, and her ‘amazing’ oncologist Jeremy Braybrook.

She said: “My wonderful husband left his job in finance to become my carer and continues to be a source of great help to me through this.”

Amber credits her husband Norman as being a pillar of strength during treatment. Credit: Bristol University

Next on the cards for Amber is more study, having being offered the chance to undertake an NIHR Advanced Fellowship, which was awarded this year. 

“There’s certainly pressure on my oncologist to keep me alive. There’s still so much left to achieve.

“My illness isn’t a barrier but a tool that has helped me zone in on what’s important, and in turn learning has helped me manage my illness.

"I was given two years to live at the beginning of my PHD and it’s been almost five years and counting.”