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12 May 2021
2021 05 May

What happens when the oncologist gets cancer?

  • Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre
  • Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
  • University of Melbourne


Professor Grant McArthur is a giant in the Australian oncology world.

He’s the Executive Director of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre alliance, the Head of the Molecular Oncology Laboratory at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, a Senior Principal Research Fellow (NHMRC), and a global leader in melanoma and skin cancers.

He’s also a prostate cancer survivor.

It was six-and-a-half years ago that McArthur found himself on the other end of a diagnosis he’d been giving out his entire career as a practicing oncologist.

Rectal and perineal biopsies followed to confirm the diagnosis before he underwent a radical robotic prostatectomy to remove the cancer.

In a candid interview with Professor Eva Segelov on The Oncology Podcast, McArthur recalled his own experience of informing his family – a heavy early milestone in anyone’s cancer journey – and reflected on how it has shaped his ability to connect with his patients.

“The mistake I made was that I didn’t give [my kids] a very soft landing,” McArthur said.

“I was just blunt – ‘Oh, I’ve got cancer’ – I was pretty much as blunt as that.

“I tend to be a bit direct, but that coupled with [the fact that] I’ve got a lot of information at my fingertips and I was fully informed and understood what was going to go on, whereas they did not … I didn’t walk them through it in the way that would’ve been ideal.

“I’ve been a lot more focused since my diagnosis when I talk to my patients and their families about how you talk to each other about your cancer.

“You learn from your own experience of not doing things well.”

He was asked early in his cancer journey whether his diagnosis had changed him as a doctor, to which he responded: “No, no, it hasn’t changed me at all”.

But in 2021, McArthur says his initial reaction couldn’t have been further from the truth.

“There’s no doubt that I’m more attuned and think more about patients’ emotional responses to their cancer and the way they interact with their families – I pay relatively more attention to it now,” he said.

“I used to feel that I was pretty orientated that way, but there’s definitely more sympathy and empathy, and a focus on those things.”

More than learning from his lived experience of cancer, McArthur is driven by the inequity he sees in the health system, and he’s acutely aware the level of care he received is not available to everyone.

“It’s one of the reasons why I really love my current role as Executive Director of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre,” McArthur said.

“I was very fortunate in that obviously I have a high health literacy – an oncologist gets cancer; you know the drill – but I landed with a great team and great advice and was well-looked after.

“But I don’t want a health system where your outcomes and experience will be determined by where you happen to land – where you happen to be referred by your clinician.

“We want the same outcomes for people with cancer no matter where they hit our system, and that drives me.

“I use my own experience as a driving force because I feel so fortunate, and I know there are those that are not so fortunate.”

Access the full interview to hear more from Professor Grant McArthur, as well as two other prominent oncologists who’ve experienced living with cancer.

With sincere thanks to Rachel Babin, Professor Eva Segelov, and The Oncology Podcast, brought to you by Oncology News Australia.