Oncology acknowledged in Australia Day Honours

10 minute read

Modest almost to a fault, those receiving a gong for their achievements reflect the depth of commitment, expertise and just all-round brilliance of the Australian oncology community.

It turns out you don’t have to be athletic or have the voice of angel or a face for celluloid to be recognised in this country after all. No fewer than seven of this year’s Australia Day Honours have gone to people whose life work has benefited the oncology community.  

In addition to feeling honoured and humbled, many recipients we spoke to this week said they were surprised to hear from the Governor-General’s office, despite their impressive list of achievements.  

That’s even the case for Professor Michael Claude Berndt, appointed Officer of the Order (AO) for distinguished service to medical research in the field of haematology, to tertiary education, and to the promotion of science. 

Professor Berndt retired as John Curtin Distinguished Emeritus Professor in 2018. He spent the latter part of his career in university leadership roles in Ireland and Australia, but the majority of his years were devoted to research, publishing over 300 papers and working primarily on cell adhesion receptors that mediate platelets and white cell interactions with the vessel wall, or “how blood cells stick to blood vessels” and how the engagement of those adhesion receptors signals subsequent events that can lead to thrombosis and inflammation. 

Professor Berndt also looked into how platelets are involved in cancer metastasis and the mechanisms, causes and treatment of cancer-associated thrombosis, a frequent complication, particularly of solid tumours. 

“It was a complete and utter surprise to me when I was contacted,” Professor Berndt tells Oncology Republic. “I guess someone obviously thought well of me.” 

The list of Professor Anna deFazio’s achievements is extraordinarily long, even in such esteemed company as this group. Professor DeFazio is appointed Member of the Order (AM) for significant service to medicine, particularly cancer research. 

“I do wear a lot of hats. There are a lot of balls in the air!” she tells OR.  

Professor deFazio’s main area of research is ovarian cancer, including subtypes that are very hard to treat.  

But many of the hats she wears involve supporting young researchers and clinicians. “As we get on a bit further in our life, we want to make sure that those coming up behind us are really well supported to continue the work,” she says. 

Professor deFazio has what she describes as a unique position within a clinical team that looks after patients with gynaecological cancer at Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s western suburbs. Her role is to bring research into the everyday care of patients and she credits the clinical team for their commitment to incorporating research into their care.  

“It really shortens the time for getting the results into the clinic to make a difference if you’re working together from the get-go. For a start, the researchers are asking the right questions. And because you’re working hand in glove with the clinical team, implementation is so much easier,” she says. 

Professor DeFazio is a principal investigator in the Innovate study, which provides ovarian cancer patients with molecular testing to assist with diagnosis and direction to the appropriate care and clinical trials. 

“It’s heading towards personalised care. We’re hoping that studies like Innovate will help work out the best way to be able to do that,” she says. 

“We’ve been very fortunate to live at a time that was getting fantastic results from ovarian cancer research. And now we’re at the point of really being able to take that research into the clinic to really improve care for our patients. But we’ve got still got a long way to go.” 

Associate Professor Peter Andrew Downie is appointed Member of the Order (AM) for significant service to paediatric oncology, to teaching, and to research. 

“I’m very pleased to be recognised. You know, you spend 30 years of your life doing paediatric cancer medicine, and you hope you make a difference,” Professor Downie tells OR.  

Professor Downie is now the head of paediatric haemotology-oncology at Monash Children’s Cancer Centre but when he first started in 1994, it was “a one-man band”.  

“We now have a team of 28, a full, multidisciplinary oncology service. I guess that’s what I’m most proud of, having built the whole thing up from nothing,” he says. 

“But you don’t do it on your own. All along the way there have been people that have come and gone. Nothing like this can ever be achieved without a team around you, and also with good supports from home,” he says. 

Professor Downie has also put his efforts into fundraising for children’s cancer research and into training. “Through here I’ve trained 18 paediatric oncologists. And we’re still doing this oncology fellow training program to train up doctors to become cancer specialists into the future. That’s the plan. And it’s one of the things that I’m also proud of, that we’ve got some degree of succession planning going forward,” he says.  

Professor Gail Risbridger is appointed Member of the Order (AM) for significant service to medical research and administration, and to education. Professor Risbridger, a researcher specialising in the area of prostate cancer, has been head of the Prostate Cancer Research Program, Department of Anatomy at Monash University in Melbourne since 1996.  

“This is an award that recognises achievements over many, many years,” she reflects. She’s seen many changes in that time, with the role of drugs expanding greatly in the last decade or so.  

In particular, Professor Risbridger has seen the integration of research into the management of patients, the breaking down of silos and the collaboration between clinicians from different disciplines, researchers, industry, academia and patients. 

“We’ve seen so many advances in oncology as it relates to prostate cancer. And research has been an essential part of those developments. That is such a significant change in my lifetime,” she says. 

At the start of her career, researchers barely dreamt of being included in multidisciplinary teams and when she returned to Australia from the US in the 1990s, the integration of urology, pathology research and oncology wasn’t common.  

“My interaction with oncologists has changed. It used to be very low key. Now you go to the major centres and you see clinicians, scientists and industry working together,” she tells OR. 

“As a researcher, being involved that way has definitely made my research better. At the end of the day, the research begins with the patient and ends with the patient. And having us involved in multidisciplinary teams has been an enormous privilege.” 

Dr Evelyn Mei Yin Yap, awarded Medal of the Order (OAM) for services to medicine and to multiculturalism, often fields calls at all hours from members of the community whose first language isn’t English. A radiologist with expertise in breast MRI, mammography and nuclear medicine, Dr Yap been able to marry her professional knowledge with her Chinese and Malaysian cultural background and her own experience of radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. 

“As a medical person, I’ve been privileged to understand medicine and radiology in particular. My craft has allowed me to understand many different diseases and I’ve been able to help the multicultural community with that, as well as doing a lot of fundraising,” Dr Yap tells OR. 

“I understand what cancer pain is, and I like giving back to the community, because as a migrant myself, I’ve had a lot of support from a community that was foreign to me,” says Dr Yap, who first arrived in Adelaide as a high school student. 

As well as being a partner at Benson Radiology, senior staff consultant at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and senior visiting medical specialist at BreastScreen SA, Dr Yap is actively involved with  the Australian Migrant Resource Centre, the Malaysia Club of SA, the Australia Malaysia Business Council SA and the Australian Chinese Medical Association.  

Like so many of today’s award recipients, Dr Yap says she never imagined she’d be in this position. “That’s my story. It’s a very small story. I’m just an ordinary person really.”  

Associate Professor Richard Gallagher, awarded Medal of the Order (OAM) for service to medicine as a surgeon, tells OR that for him it’s all about trying to improve the plight of people who have head and neck cancer by doing things like introducing new techniques such as robotic surgery, and equity of access for patients in the regions. 

“It’s really making sure that everyone gets treated,” he says. “There are still problems with that, even though there’s been improvement.” 

Professor Gallagher is the director of cancer services at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and has been involved with the hospital in his area of expertise almost since the turn of the century. In that time he’s seen great strides in oncological and surgical care for head and neck cancer patients. “We’ve got many, many more opportunities to manage and either make patients’ cancer journey easier or to cure them of cancer,” he says. 

“For me, the robotic side of things has made a huge difference to the ability to treat those patients with oropharyngeal cancer without having to perform external operations, so we can do it with much less morbidity. It doesn’t necessarily remove the need for adjuvant treatment, but it certainly means they need less.” 

Clinical Professor Graham John Lieschke is appointed Member of the Order (AM) for significant service to medicine as a haematologist, and to medical research.  

Professor Lieschke is a clinician scientist, treating people with leukaemia and lymphoma at the Royal Melbourne Hospital/ Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and running the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute research laboratory at Monash University. 

“One thing that gives me a lot of delight is reflecting on how clinical and research colleagues, friends and family have worked together on diverse projects in the hospital, in the lab, and in my other interests, to achieve much more than any of us could have just working alone,” Professor Lieschke tells OR

“This award reflects the many opportunities given to me and the shared efforts of many clinical and laboratory research colleagues that I’ve had the privilege of working with throughout my career as a haematologist and medical researcher,” says Professor Lieschke 

His work using zebrafish to study blood disorders and cancer has been internationally acclaimed.

“Looking forward, I would encourage that basic biological research be valued as an important foundation for the ‘translational’ medical research insights that directly benefit patients,” he says. 

Not all of the awards that Professor Lieschke has received over the years have been related to medicine though. Like so many others who dedicate their professional energies to the cancer field, his talents are not restricted to it.  

An organist and conductor who is passionate about the music of J.S. Bach, he was awarded the 2004 Dame Roma Mitchell Churchill Fellowship and currently directs the Bach cantata program at St Johns Southgate Lutheran Church in Melbourne.  

Listening to recordings of these performances has brought us here at Oncology Republic to what feels a fitting conclusion. The theme emerging from all our conversations with this year’s worthy recipients is one of multidisciplinary teams joining together in a careful and enthusiastic collaboration in the service of patient care. And that fits well with the harmonious sounds coming from Professor Lieschke’s performances.   

Remember, anyone can nominate any Australian for an award in the Order of Australia. If you know someone worthy, nominate them now at www.gg.gov.au  

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