Cancer experts on what disease can teach us about life

La Trobe alumni and academics are shaping cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. Discover the difference they’re making to the lives of cancer patients and the most powerful lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

Almost all of us know someone affected by cancer. And while the disease is a leading cause of death globally, survival rates of many types of cancer are improving, particularly in countries where health systems are strong.

For every patient who’s diagnosed with cancer, an impressive workforce is at the ready: from scientists working in world-leading cancer research labs, to clinicians educating and caring for patients throughout hospital wards. We spoke with members of the La Trobe community who work with cancer every day, to understand how the disease has shaped their philosophy on life. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Build a community around you

Any job has its stressful elements, so having a supportive community around you is critical. But what that community looks like differs for each of us.

The team around Professor Matthias Ernst, Head of La Trobe’s School of Cancer Medicine and Director of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI), includes renowned scientists, talented graduate researchers and clinicians who collaborate in a laboratory located directly across from hospital wards. Their proximity creates a unique, highly-connected community where biological discoveries translate efficiently into clinical trials – helping cancer patients feel better, sooner.

“There are many great medical research institutes that study fundamental questions about cancer, and excellent hospitals that study fundamental questions about cancer and provide wonderful care. But very few manage to achieve the critical mix where scientists, doctors, patients and families collaborate to make an impact on cancer care. This ability to partner and collaborate drives the research excellence to which everyone at ONJCRI is committed,” Matthias says.

Likewise, Associate Professor Belinda Parker (Bachelor of Science (Hons) 1998, PhD in biochemistry 2002) agrees that having a capable team is essential to navigating the demands of her job. A highly awarded biochemist, Belinda leads the Parker Lab at Melbourne's Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

“Being a lab head is a busy and stressful role. Not only are you managing and supervising the research, you’re also sourcing funding, delivering budgets, securing ethics approvals, recruiting early career scientists and doing a lot of administration. Having the right team around you and the right people to go to for advice makes a massive difference,” she says.

“The people around you really dictate your success in life, particularly how you deal with both positive and negative situations. No-one can do everything on their own. Through cancer research, I’ve learnt that assembling the right team of collaborators is essential in achieving goals and being successful. And I think it’s similar in life.”

Interdisciplinarity is an important element of Belinda’s community. She’s found it valuable for coming up with new ideas and setting innovative directions for her lab’s cancer research.

“If we just looked at things in our own little area, we’d miss some of the fascinating things found by branching out. Together, we can draw on multiple disciplines to make something a lot bigger. Talking to clinicians and to people from all different disciplines helps you make the most of an avenue of research, and I find that really exciting,” she says.

In regional Victoria, Bec Hogan (Bachelor of Nursing (Pre-Reg) 2016) describes a close-knit community of patients and hospital staff at Bendigo Health, where she’s a clinical nurse specialising in oncology.

“Building connections and relationships with patients is my favourite part of the role in oncology, but it can also make it the most challenging. Treatment isn’t always successful, which can be heartbreaking for everyone involved,” Bec says.

“Thankfully, I work in a beautifully supportive team of nurses, oncologists, ward clerks and cleaners who band together to provide support and care. Also, chocolate and tissues are in ample supply for really tough days!”

Of course, giving back to the community around you is vital, too. Make a meaningful contribution to society, advises Matthias, because it’s your community who’ll help you out when times are tough.

“For most of us, cancer is indiscriminatory, so we better make the best of our life and try to contribute to society. Because if we’re the one person out of three having to face up to cancer, we’ll be relying on that society,”  Matthias says.

2. Know what motivates you

Whenever you set a goal, solve a problem or cope with a challenge, motivation is what helps you to get it done. You might be motivated by external rewards like money, power or status. Or, you might be inspired by more intrinsic desires, like curiosity, creativity or freedom.

Whatever it is that drives you, understanding and harnessing it will help you progress in life. For scientists Belinda and Matthias, the chance of discovery is what draws them to work with cancer every day.

“Finding something that no-one else has looked at, which could impact a patient directly, that’s what drives me,” Belinda says.

For Belinda and her team, discoveries happen at the biological level, where cancers interact with surrounding cells. Looking at cancer has led her group to uncover new biomarkers – molecules that act like ‘flags’ for normal or abnormal processes in the body – which can predict things like the risk of a cancer spreading, or how a cancer might respond to therapy. They’ve also discovered new ways to shine a spotlight on cancer cells in aggressive breast and prostate cancers.

“We’ve discovered immune pathways that are hidden or ‘lost’ in these cancer cells, which allows them to escape from immunity. We’re trying to bring them out of hiding, because the majority of therapies being trialled in the immune space rely on visibility of the cancer cell,” Belinda says.

“To do that, we’ve found a process that turns that cancer cell visibility back on. We think it will have a huge impact for patients of metastatic cancers, who otherwise have limited therapeutic options for improving their long-term survival.”

If you’ve ever felt energised by exploring something new, you’ll know the sense of discovery can be a tremendous motivator. But as Matthias points out, it can also be demanding.

“Science and research are about asking new questions and going where no one has gone before, by building on the great work of others. You have to be resilient to cope with the many futile avenues of pursuit, to make a great discovery once in a while,” he says.

Currently, Matthias is exploring how to increase the proportion of cancer patients who respond to immune therapy. He and his lab team are working on ways to manipulate the cells in the vicinity of tumour cells that prevent immune cells from attacking and killing cancer cells.

And because his lab is located close to clinicians and patients, he’s also motivated by the potential impact his discoveries might have.

“Conducting research in the same building where cancer patients get treated provides me and my colleagues every day with a clear reason why we do our work, and how we need to keep the focus on making a real impact,” he says.

For oncology nurse Bec, motivation comes from connecting with her patients’ inherent wisdom and positivity.

“The power of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. I’ve seen how optimism and hope can change a person’s experience with their treatment. Ultimately, life can feel unfair at times, but the patients I work with inspire me to be better and live authentically,” she says.

“At the risk of sounding clichéd, working with cancer patients reminds me every day that you don’t know what the future holds. It highlights how worrying over small things is a waste of time that could be used far more productively.”

3. Share your knowledge

Think of a time when you learnt something new, then shared it with a friend or colleague who really ‘got it’. It felt great, right?

Knowledge is powerful, and sharing it can have a profound impact – especially in the context of cancer.

“The unknown can be the most frightening part of a cancer diagnosis. So, I’m always upskilling and learning about new treatments. From the initial education appointment to the first chemotherapy session, right through to when a patient leaves, I’m responsible for giving people tailored information,” Bec says.

As a researcher, Belinda agrees that the more you can harness knowledge by sharing it with patients, the more powerful it becomes. Right now, she’s working with programs in the US and UK to translate her lab’s latest discovery into clinical practice.

“We’ve discovered some really terrific new biomarkers in the ‘gatekeeper’ cells, which are the cells surrounding those where breast cancer starts. We want to translate these biomarkers into clinical use, so oncologists can answer questions at an individual patient level, ‘Do you have a type of cancer that will come back after surgery? Do you actually need invasive therapy? Are there treatments that are most likely to benefit you?” she says.

“It’s all about giving patients knowledge of their own cancer, so they can use it in the best way possible. If someone knows more about what they’re going through and why they’re receiving a particular therapy, they can deal with it a lot better.”

This is especially true of personalised therapy, an approach that tailors therapeutic strategies to patients at a uniquely individual level. Belinda believes it has the potential to revolutionise cancer treatment.

“Each patient has a right to receive the very best therapy, but also the right to be spared therapies that aren’t going to work for them, because many of them have associated side effects. Rather than trying a therapy in any patient and monitoring response, we’re aiming to drive personalised approaches by taking our biological discoveries and biomarkers into the clinic to unmask new treatments for individual patients, in the hope that we can reduce mortality.”

4. Develop your emotional intelligence

Kindness can really make a difference in cancer care – and in life. Skills like empathy, active listening and an ability to build trust are among those linked to emotional intelligence. Without them, we struggle to understand our own emotions and those of others.

For cancer patients whose worlds have been turned suddenly upside down, emotions run high. Skilled oncology nurses like Bec use skills in emotional intelligence to address patients’ intense feelings.

“My role as a chemotherapy nurse is to help people through an emotional experience with empathy, communication and education,” Bec says.

When done well, an empathetic exchange can also give you valuable information in return. Listening intently to her patients, for example, allows Bec to demonstrate respect and build trust. This encourages patients to talk honestly about their situation and offer important details they mightn’t have otherwise shared.

“I’m reminded to really listen to what patients are saying. Being able to build good rapport means patients are more likely to share important information with you, such as complimentary therapies they’re using,” Bec says.

For all its rewards, working in cancer research and care clearly has its challenging moments. Both Bec and Belinda champion self-awareness (recognising your emotions) and self-management (regulating your emotions).

In Belinda’s case, this means having the courage to draw on others’ kindness, too.

“Being able to reach out to other people for help when you need it is important. Just as you don’t need to be an expert at everything, it’s okay to admit that you may not be able to deal with something by yourself,” Belinda says.

It also means appreciating the little things in life that bring you happiness.

“I have a son who’s 12 years old, and a daughter who’s 10. If I’ve had a rough day, where I’ve found out I’ve missed out on a research grant or something, I go home and do something fun with the kids. It puts my life back into perspective,” Belinda says.

Bec agrees: “Rather than singular big moments, it’s the small, everyday things in my career that matter. The family member who writes a thoughtful card; the home cooked biscuits people bring in; or the patient who knows you love cooking so brings in vegetables from their garden. These are the things that move me and make me feel grateful to work in such a wonderful profession.”

Enjoyed this story? Learn more about how La Trobe researchers are meeting the cancer challenge on multiple fronts.