Highgate doctor crosses continents for cancer research in sponsored swimathon

A Highgate doctor has been gearing up to face high winds, waves, jelly fish and killer whales in a sponsored swim across continents to raise vital funds to fight cancer.

Dr Christina Thirlwell, an oncologist at the Royal Free Hospital in Pond Street, Hampstead, will brave Turkey’s treacherous Bosphorus strait between Europe and Asia in aid of Cancer Research UK.

The 42-year-old scientist, who has already crossed the English Channel, Gibraltar Straits and Caribbean Sea in a series of trans-continental swims since 2007, said that the courage she encounters among her patients every day provides “all the motivation I need”.

She added: “Long distance open water swimming is full of uncertainties and challenges. There’s sea sickness, hypothermia, changing weather conditions and friendly sea life.

“Cancer patients face uncertainty on a day-to-day basis, and I have learned from and been inspired by them since working as an oncologist.”

Dr Thirlwell, who lives in Highgate Village and trains at Parliament Hill Lido, planned to complete the fourth stage of her Crossing Continents marathon in August but her attempt to swim across the Bosphorus had to be abandoned due to an almost unprecented Force 7 gale in the region.

As a consolation, she decided to go ahead with a three-kilometre swim in what she called “rather lively conditions” and is training to try the crossing again next year.

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She said that her toughest challenge so far was the English Channel, despite having shared the water with predatory orca whales and hundreds of dolphins in Gibraltar and being stung by jelly fish 26 times in a single swim during training.

“Most of the others were in warm waters and were shorter but the Channel was 19 hours in cold water, around 17 Celcius,” she explained.

A Cancer Research UK clinician scientist, Dr Thirlwell is backing the charity’s joint Stand Up to Cancer fundraising campaign with Channel 4, which aims to raise money so that new and better treatments can be given to patients faster.

The project raised more than £8 million for ground-breaking research when it first took place in 2012 and this year’s campaign culminated in a live TV show on yesterday evening.

Dr Thirlwell, Chrissie to her friends, said of the work: “Research undertaken throughout the UK, supported by Cancer Research UK, has led to improved outcomes for all cancer patients.

“It is vital that this research continues. That’s what drives me on.”

* To donate, visit justgiving.com/Crossing-continents.