Investing in the next generation of cancer researchers is vital for the future and something Sir Bobby Robson believed in passionately.

Helen Chambers (left) and Ashleigh Barrow

When he launched our Foundation he was keen to support specialist training posts that ensured talented people had the opportunity to gain the skills and experience they required.

Within the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, we fund trainee posts for both a doctor and a nurse to specialise in clinical drug trials.

Since 2019, the trainee specialist cancer research nurse role has been funded thanks to the Foundation’s long-term supporters, Newcastle Building Society, who have donated more than £3m over a decade of heartfelt support for the charity.

The current ‘Sir Bobby’ nurse is 27-year-old Ashleigh Barrow from Newcastle, who joined the team last year to help deliver vital clinical trials of new cancer drugs.

Ashleigh qualified with a BSc in Nursing Studies at Northumbria University and spent the previous five years as a staff nurse in the Ophthalmology Day Unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

Her role involves welcoming new trial participants to discuss trials of experimental cancer treatments, often ‘first in human’ trials, and helping coordinate trials of drugs at later stages of development.

She also completes complex blood sampling and shipment, administers oral and intravenous experimental treatments, and works closely with the Imaging Research Centre to improve diagnosis and study the effects of new drugs.

Ashleigh says: “I wanted to become a nurse, because I’ve always loved working with people and it feels really natural to me. And I wanted to do something that makes a real difference.

“I enjoyed working in ophthalmology, but felt like a change and to push myself in a new direction, so I began looking at options to work in research. I think it’s a good fit for me personally and as soon as I visited the Sir Bobby Robson Centre, I knew I’d found the right place.

“There’s a great team and it’s a very supportive environment, which is really important if, like me, you don’t have a background in oncology. This role combines clinical work with patients alongside research and there’s a path to progress along. There are obviously some significant challenges to face when you are working with people who have advanced cancer but there’s such a warm and supportive feeling in this unit and I’m very happy to be here.”

Patients in the Sir Bobby Robson Centre have advanced cancer and know that existing, standard cancer treatment will not be effective for them. Therefore, it is vital that the nurse in this role provides emotional and psychological support to patients and their families, as well as maintaining patient safety and well-being.

Last year, there were 400 new patient referrals to the Sir Bobby Robson Centre and there are 30 clinical drug trials currently underway.

Andrew Haigh, chief executive at Newcastle Building Society

Andrew Haigh, chief executive at Newcastle Building Society, adds: “For more than a decade, our relationship with the Foundation has always been about making a practical difference to the incredible work that the organisation supports and being a part of Sir Bobby’s legacy is a source of pride for the whole Society.

“We’re proud to support Ashleigh as part of this amazing team, working with the very best people in their field and to contribute to the development and delivery of even more cancer treatment landmarks at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care.”

Helen Chambers, senior oncology research sister at the Sir Bobby Robson Centre, adds: “The funding for this post is invaluable as it has allowed the unit to recruit an additional nurse into the department to help and support patients with advanced cancer who are involved in an experimental cancer drug trial.

“In particular, this post allows the recruitment of a nurse, who has the right qualities, but would not have the experience required for a band 6 post.

“Early phase trials have become more complex over the last decade and patient referrals have increased dramatically. Due to the patient’s advanced disease, they often have many complex needs and symptoms that require support and intervention. Ashleigh has been instrumental in providing holistic support for these patients and supporting their families.”