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07 Sep 2022

Dr Sarah Heynemann: Cancer survivorship, or cancer ‘thrivership’?

  • VCCC Alliance
  • St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne
  • University of Sydney

Dr Sarah Heynemann, a research fellow at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, says the wisdom of those with a cancer diagnosis is humbling and a sage reminder that healthcare support should not just be about surviving, but thriving.

How did you come to the field of lung cancer and cancer survivorship?

In 2021, I was based in Sydney undertaking a lung cancer fellowship at Chris O'Brien Lifehouse. One of the projects I developed was a pilot study of a novel survivorship-focused virtual multi-disciplinary team (MDT) intervention, directed at patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who may be deemed 'longer-term' responders to therapy. The pilot study, which has been approved and will hopefully start recruiting shortly, builds on earlier research I was involved in while at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre examining the survivorship needs of a group of patients with metastatic NSCLC, treated with immunotherapy or targeted therapies, who fell into a longer-term responder category. This was a collaboration between clinicians, researchers and consumers across Peter Mac, RMIT and The University of Sydney. The findings from this project were humbling and thought-provoking, highlighting a range of unmet concerns and supportive care needs among this patient cohort.

Why does this area of cancer care interest you?

My interest in cancer survivorship was prompted by the opportunity to be involved in research examining the survivorship needs of patients with metastatic cancer. Although by strict definition 'cancer survivorship' should refer to the needs of all patients following cancer diagnosis through to the balance of their lives, in practice the term tends to be associated with patients with early-stage cancers. With the advent of immunotherapy and targeted therapy across many tumour streams over the past decade, and associated improvements in survival, there are now many people living for extended periods of time with advanced cancer. In periods when the cancer is 'stable', these patients may have other concerns which may fall under the umbrella of survivorship.

What motivates you to share these learnings through a Massive Open Online Course?

Survivorship care by necessity is a 'team sport' between consumers, hospital and community-based healthcare providers across various disciplines. I hope to contribute insights from my own clinical and research experience, but likewise hope to learn from participants engaging within the MOOC platform! The fact that the course is flexible and open to anyone across the world also invites the opportunity to share experience with others working in a variety of settings and healthcare systems. This is exciting!

On the topic of ‘survivorship’, I also appreciated being challenged by a patient when giving a presentation last year that we should be aiming more highly for ‘thrivership’ rather than just surviving – a worthy reminder!

For many, the thought and experience of cancer is one of dread – what gives you hope as a cancer healthcare practitioner and researcher?

Hope is critical for all of us in many aspects of life, isn’t it? There are many reasons to be excited for the future of cancer care and research. We have advanced cancer treatments so far – both in terms of treatment efficacy, and managing and hopefully minimising side effects. The challenges of the past few COVID-19 years perhaps have been a helpful catalyst for more collaborative initiatives (eg establishment of the Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Network), and highlighted the importance of fostering integrated and team-based care across cancer care generally. The louder voice of consumers in regard to their direction of care as well as input in socially valuable research is also encouraging.

There is something uniquely defining about the pointy end of a cancer diagnosis. It is humbling, as a healthcare practitioner, to be the observer of such wisdom as someone’s life priorities are drawn into poignant focus.

Dr Heynemann will facilitate the VCCC Alliance Massive Open Online Course Cancer Survivorship for Primary Care Practitioners, commencing Monday 3 October.

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