Meet Dr Chelsie O’Connor, Radiation Oncologist at GenesisCare. Here she talks about taking the scenic route to her dream career, the Cicada Innovations’ Commercialisation Training Program and the importance of mentors
What is your current role and how did you get to be there?
I am a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiation Oncologists. I treat skin and head and neck cancers as well as haematological malignancies, working for GenesisCare based at Macquarie University Hospital. I took the scenic route to my dream career
What is Most of my clinical work is in treating complex skin cancers with radiotherapy. There is a significant global burden of disease in skin cancer. Radiotherapy techniques are rapidly advancing, and we are treating large fields of skin that we were not able to treat just 5 years ago. I can see the enormous impacts this is having on patients’ quality of life and confidence.
I also treat head and neck cancers and unfortunately see the significant negative effects of advanced cancers that can greatly affect quality of life. I am passionate about prevention and early diagnosis to avoid the morbidity and mortality we see from advanced cancers. I am also focused on designing and implementing comprehensive, sustainable healthcare models with the patient as the focusI wanted to be a doctor from a very early age but, after leaving school, it took me three attempts over 7 years to begin my medical degree. Although it took me a little while, with the benefit of hindsight I would not have changed a thing…I spent those 7 years out in the workforce and my final role was in sales and marketing for a commercial beverage company. It may not be the kind of preparation for a medical degree commonly seen, but it taught me the importance of great customer experiences, the value of professional relationships and the benefits of working in teams. I believe my life before medicine has made me a better clinician.
When I finally entered the healthcare system, I began to sense there are ways we could do things better and there was an opportunity for healthcare to learn from other industries. It is fair to say I felt some frustration at how long it could take for patients to receive the high-quality evidence-based care they deserve. This desire to look at how we could deliver patient care better was a motivator for me to complete Cicada Innovations’ Commercialisation Training Program, and I am now at the tail end of an MBA through MGSM.
This passion for better care is why I accepted my current position as site director of a radiotherapy department, as well as continuing my clinical work caring for patients
How does your work contribute to the field and/or the overall health and wellbeing of the community?
Most of my clinical work is in treating complex skin cancers with radiotherapy. There is a significant global burden of disease in skin cancer. Radiotherapy techniques are rapidly advancing, and we are treating large fields of skin that we were not able to treat just 5 years ago. I can see the enormous impacts this is having on patients’ quality of life and confidence.
I also treat head and neck cancers and unfortunately see the significant negative effects of advanced cancers that can greatly affect quality of life. I am passionate about prevention and early diagnosis to avoid the morbidity and mortality we see from advanced cancers. I am also focused on designing and implementing comprehensive, sustainable healthcare models with the patient as the focus.
What project would you love to get off the ground, or skill would you develop, if you had the opportunity?
If I had more resources and funding, I would love to expand on the work we are doing with the Australian Lymphoedema Education, Research and Treatment (ALERT) program at Macquarie University. My good friend Louise Koelmeyer and I are doing some exciting work in identifying factors that may place patients at increased risk of lymphoedema in skin cancer and how to avoid this.
Our big-picture plan is to expand this to more patients and more tumour sites, scaling excellent care to all cancer patients.
What are your loves outside of work?
Of course, my children are a great love outside of work! I don’t have any real hobbies that stick. My siblings scored the creative genes (music, dance, comedic talent etc). It has only been in the last few years I could admit that I relax by studying! (refer to the commercialisation course and MBA above!)
I have just taken up running again after 10 years. I run and my 11-year-old daughter rides her bike beside me, much easier with a fitness buddy! I ran a half marathon back in 2011 and felt like I had been hit by a bus for weeks afterwards. In retrospect, I had pushed my body physically, but the demands of juggling registrar training and a toddler resulted in poor eating habits and less than ideal amounts of sleep. That taught me a lot about holistic self-care.
A great joy is socialising. I grew up in country WA and got to experience a strong sense of community growing up in a rural town. I thought large cities may not have that same sense of community, but we have been very fortunate to find ourselves living in a small street of Sydney with other families. The kids ride bikes on the street, play in the park and have sleepovers. There are quite a few dads on the street that are extraordinary cooks, so we often find ourselves at each other’s places for BBQs or themed dinners.
What is one piece of advice you could pass onto others following their own career in the health and medical research sector?
I have been very lucky to have had some great mentors in my early career. One bit of advice was ‘you can have it all, just not at the same time’. I struggled with this bit of advice to begin with and thought ‘I should be able to have it all, it’s the 21st century for goodness’ sake!’ However, I have enjoyed those times of my career when I have gone part-time to be with kids more, given myself an extra 6–12 months to prepare for exams or reduced the study load.
On the other hand, I have had times when I really needed to focus on exams or assignments and have missed out on time with the kids. Preparing for fellowship exams was a commitment and involved studying every weekend for 9 months. I felt a lot of guilt about missing out on activities with our children (aged 5 and 18 months). But I think I was a more relaxed and fun mum during that time. I didn’t have the mental capacity to worry about a lot of things and would enjoy switching off by playing on the trampoline, watching TV with them, reading books etc. My daughter did write me a card about 6 months after my exams saying ‘I love you more than Dad’…It was then I realised that the kids were not negatively affected during that time…(poor Dad, he had been the primary carer for those 9 months).