Dr Rachel Conyers is a paediatric, adolescent and young adult malignant haematologist oncologist and one of the scientists awarded funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project in 2018.
After completing her medical degree at Monash University in 2003 she received a fellowship in paediatric oncology at The Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne before heading to the UK where she completed fellowships at both the University College of London Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
Dr Conyers began an Adult and Adolescent fellowship in Haematology at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre when she came back to Australia in 2010. Then, in 2016 she was awarded a Clinician Scientist Fellowship at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute where she is currently working.
This research fellowship is enabling her to continue research into an area that she’s fascinated with, the genetic predisposition to chemotherapy side effects (mainly anthracycline cardiomyopathy).
We caught up with her recently to find out more about life, career path and what drives her to help children and AYAs with cancer.
TKCP: Tell us a bit about your family
We are a family of four. My husband is also a doctor and we met when doing rotations on the suburbs many years ago. We have two young boys Leo and Walter. We spend our weekends bouncing between swimming classes, GymbaROO and Mini Maestros!
TKCP: What attracted you to seek out fellowships in the UK?
It’s wonderful to get overseas experience in any aspect or area of medicine or surgery. Going to other hospitals teaches you to be flexible and realise there are more ways than one to approach a problem. I was attracted to work in London because of the lifestyle and proximity to Europe along with the world-class teaching hospitals.
TKCP: When and why did you decide to be a paediatric oncologist?
I originally wanted to be a paediatric plastic surgeon. But then I was told by a lovely honest plastic surgeon that I was asking all the questions aligned with being a physician rather than a surgeon. My next rotation was in paediatric oncology. When I did this rotation it felt like it was meant to be. The medicine was interesting and the patients and families were so amazingly stoic, strong and resilient. It just felt like a good fit for me.
TKCP: What triggered your research to find better treatments for kids with cancer?
I was given some excellent advice by Professor David Ashley as a junior fellow to explore research as a way to expand my knowledge and career options long term. Professor Ashley put me in contact with Professor Thomas who I later did my PhD with at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. I never envisaged staying in research when I started off. But, at the end of my PhD, once I’d written my thesis, I no longer felt this way. Research has given me an avenue to make discoveries, be creative and, hopefully, make a difference in paediatric oncology beyond the patient-clinician coalface.
TKCP: What is the driving force behind your desire to focus on AYA patients?
This grant focuses on both the paediatric sector but also AYA patients (up to age 30). AYA’s are a unique group of patients with very different psychosocial issues than paediatric or adult patients. They also have high-risk cancers with some still having poor prognosis with minimal improvements in survivals over many years now. I’ve been interested in this age group since undertaking a fellowship in AYA sarcoma in London. My research is more into the cardiac side effects of therapy which both paediatric, adolescent, young adult and adult patients are at risk of.
TKCP: We tend to bundle AYAs together, but is there a distinction between adolescent and young adult patients?
There is. They have a distinct group of cancers that occur that are slightly different to paediatric and adult patients in subtype and distribution. They are also very different in terms of their psychosocial needs.
TKCP: You’re both a practicing clinician as well as a researcher, is it a balancing act?
Practicing as a full time clinician is very difficult and emotionally challenging in paediatric oncology. I have found this even more difficult since having my own family. Having research as a string in my bow provides some balance with clinical work that I hope will help prevent me from the clinician burnout we so often see. Beyond this, I like to keep the weekends mostly about family and friends and try to leave work on time so that the balance is kept in check!
TKCP: How did it make you feel to receive the funding from The Kids’ Cancer Project?
I was so excited and thankful to receive this grant. Many people don’t realise how hard it is to receive funding in this day and age. Researchers rely so heavily on philanthropic grants to sustain their projects - and these are very, very hard to come by. So thank you The Kids’ Cancer Project!
Read more: Understanding the gentic basis of chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy.
TKCP: What inspired you to work to understand the genetic basis of chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy in paediatric oncology survivors?
RC: When I was a junior resident one of my first patients on our ward went into heart failure that was related to the chemotherapy she received. She nearly didn’t make it and from that moment on I was interested in this complication of therapy. I also toyed, once, with the idea of being a cardiologist, so research in this area satisfies this interest!
TKCP: What’s your hope for the outcome of this study?
My hope is that we will be able to screen patients who will be exposed to heart toxic medication for genetic variants that place them at risk of cardiomyopathy, at the time of their cancer diagnosis. We will then be able to inform clinicians of this risk so they can act accordingly to reduce the insult to the heart (ie cease heart toxic chemotherapy, use cardiac protectant medications etc).
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