I go home every week knowing I saved lives

YOU can't help but watch Mike Dixon's hands. They never stop as he talks, constantly gesticulating, pointing, and pressing keys on his laptop, but all the while you're thinking these are the hands which cut the cancer from women's bodies; which remove their breasts. Which try to heal.

There are few people in Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland who, if they have been unlucky enough to be hit by breast cancer, have not been in the hands of Dixon. That is where their luck can turn.

Dixon has saved thousands of women's lives at the Breast Cancer Unit at Edinburgh's Western General Hospital. Indeed, there are countless stories in the Evening News where people attempting feats of endurance to raise money for cancer research – as many will during this weekend's Moonwalk – always thank Dixon and his team.

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"Well that's very good of people," he says. "It's good to know that what you do makes a difference. There are few doctors who can go home every week knowing they have saved lives. It's a privileged position." If that sounds rather modest, don't get Dixon wrong. He knows that he's good – there are the certificates, the books, the speaking invitations from around the world and of course the survival rates which attest to that – it's more that he has no time for plaudits. There are too many women needing his help; too much to do in the search for new treatments for breast cancer.

"We are the largest breast unit in the UK by a long way," he says. "And we are known all over the world. I think sometimes that in Edinburgh we don't realise how lucky we are.

"We are able to move quickly in terms of new techniques, put them into application, and prove they can work. Because we're in the health service and look after so many people we can quickly find the best way to do something and then take that to the rest of the world.

"It is specialised. If I go below the breast I'm useless – there's only a very small part of the body I'm useful with," he laughs.

Dixon is a fast-talker. An enthusiast for his subject, but not just of the clinical aspects. The 55-year-old is definitely a woman's man. Over the 20 years he has been a breast surgeon, he has seen around 40,000 women. And it wouldn't be surprising if he could recall every one.

"Ten thousand women come through our screening clinic every year and I see about 2,000 of those, so over the years it adds up. But they all have a different story and that's how you remember them. And you remember them because you are interested and because you care.

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"What energises me are my patients and the way they cope with everything we throw at them. What a great job I have as a man to look after all these women and at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. They are like my extended family. And for many of them I have been the man who has looked after them the most in their lives. They might divorce their husbands but they can't divorce me.

"You share their highs and lows and when patients are upset, I am upset. But I believe that if they know that I care, then they can deal with what's happening."

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Certainly his memory for patients is astounding. Eighteen years ago he operated on my mother, who died a few years later from secondary cancer. Her name doesn't ring bells, but I mention she was sent to Hammersmith Hospital in London for a radiotherapy trial. His face lights up. "Of course I remember," he says. "We only sent three women there. That was a very tough treatment.

"You know she had HER2 cancer. We wouldn't have known that then, but now she would be treated with Herceptin and the prognosis would be very different. Sometimes it feels as though cancer research crawls along, but really it's amazing the advances that are made."

He adds: "I have been to a lot of funerals over the years too. Many of the relatives have had to support me through them. You do feel a great sense of failure. They are all tattooed on my brain."

Perhaps one of the most emotive deaths for Dixon was that of Marlene Wightman two years ago. The 49-year-old from Dalkeith bled to death the day after he had removed her left breast. A fatal accident inquiry later discovered that nursing staff shortages and a lack of training had led to her death. Dixon, whose surgery was not at fault, apparently told the Wightman family they should find a lawyer.

It prompts a great sadness in Dixon's demeanour. "That was tough for me, for everyone here and especially for her family," is all he'll say, although it has been documented that he and the Wightman family always maintained a good relationship. "The things you do positively are like snowflakes, they disappear, and the things that go wrong . . . I can't help but remember all the funerals, all the lovely young women . . .

"You might do great work, but you always have to do better."

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That seems to have always been his credo – instilled in him by his steelworker father. He grew up in a poverty-stricken part of Sheffield, but both his parents wanted more for him and his sister.

"I went to a crap school but they let pupils sit their A Levels early in case they failed them and had to them again, so by the time I was 16 I had enough qualifications to get into university.

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"My dad was clever and knew that education was the way out of poverty. He drove both me and my sister to get out of there. I am what the Labour Party said should happen – a product of Harold Wilson – that you can achieve anything with education. My mum worked in a shop – she worked till she was 84. I think conscientiousness is a big part of my personality which I get from them. I'm pretty single-minded, and I think that's what helps make sure that anything new in the world which can help my patients is brought in here quickly."

He left school at 16 and worked as a DJ and porter for 16 months at Sheffield Northern General. "That taught me that good teams are built from the bottom up. But I then applied to medical school and came to Edinburgh, although I was also a nursing auxiliary for two summers."

On qualifying he had to deal with one of the worst moments of his life – his father's death. "I was 24 and he had retired and moved to Blackpool. He collapsed on the beach and when I got to the hospital they just said 'glad you're here, your dad's dead, we need someone to tell your mother'. They thought because I was a doctor they didn't need to talk to me as a grieving relative. That coloured the way I deal with patients and families."

Dixon went on to become a senior house officer in 1980 in the breast unit at Longmore Hospital in Newington, before moving to Oxford for more training. "But I always knew I wanted to come back and do breast surgery here," he says. "I came back as a senior trainee but after 18 months got a consultant job and I was employed by Edinburgh University for five years before I moved to the NHS."

Of course he's also had his own family life outside of work, and admits his job has had a major impact on his wife and children. "You never want to let your patients down, but sometimes you let your family down," he says. "I have two boys – one is 24 and an actuary, the other is 21 and in engineering in London. But we are a close family. In fact we'll be going on holiday together later. And I am lucky in that I have never had any breast cancer in my own family."

His other love is still music. He continued to DJ while at university, but these days its channelled into choosing music for the operating theatre.

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"One of my most prized possessions is not a certificate but a signed photo of Jon Bon Jovi. I had a patient who came from the south of England for treatment and her husband had connections with Radio 1 and he sent it up to me as a thank you.

"I love to listen to music in the operating theatre, we have a great sound system and it definitely relaxes people. I listen to a lot of dance and trance and a lot of pop. Mind you some of the team get a headache if I play trance all day," he laughs.

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And what about those valuable hands – the tools of his job? Does he look after them? "Well no more than anyone else, I'm still out in the garden, doing all the jobs needed. They don't get special protection – and no they are not insured," he laughs. "If you start to believe your own hype then you're in trouble."


NORMALLY it's the survivors or the families of those who were not so lucky who pound the streets to raise money for cancer charities.

This time, though, Professor Mike Dixon is doing it himself. In September he will be taking part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow to raise cash for Breakthrough Breast Cancer – the charity which invested 4.6 million in a research unit at the Western two years ago. Consultant surgeon Dixon is one of its two directors.

The unit aims to find ways of improving diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, with the ultimate aim of tailoring treatment to individuals rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

The Edinburgh team analyse biological changes in hormone-positive breast cancers, which account for around 80 per cent of all invasive breast cancers.

Women are usually treated for this with therapies such as tamoxifen, but researchers plan to develop new treatments for women who do not respond well to this type of treatment.

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• To sponsor Mike Dixon in the Great Scottish Run visit www.justgiving.com/Mike-Dixon