Dr Kelly Needham – Australia’s first Indigenous Radiation Oncology trainee

21 Mar 2017
Member Story

AIDA recently spoke to Australia’s first Indigenous Radiation Oncology trainee and AIDA Indigenous Medical Doctor Member, Dr Kelly Needham – a mother of 12-year old twins who grew up in a blue collar Australian family in south western Sydney, who now lives on the Central Coast.

“My Indigenous heritage comes from my father’s side of the family. We come from the Dunghutti region, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.

“I was the first person in my family to go to university. I studied Diagnostic Radiography and then went on to study Sonography. I worked as a sonographer for 10 years before applying to do Medicine through an Indigenous entry pathway.”

After completing her medical degree at Western Sydney University, Kelly started a five-year training program at Gosford Hospital’s Central Coast Cancer Centre last year, which is accredited by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (RANZCR). We asked Kelly how she is finding her training so far.

“Any specialty training is challenging and Radiation Oncology is no different, even though RANZCR offers a very well supported training program. Not only are you expected to carry out your extremely busy working week, but fit in study, assignments and exams on top of that. Not to mention making time for my family and getting my 12-year old twins to their sporting commitments. I am very lucky that I have a wonderful fiancé and very supportive parents.

“I am also very fortunate to do four of my five years of training at the Central Coast Cancer Centre. It is a wonderful working environment where I get to work with and learn from very experienced radiation oncologists. The Centre is only three years old and offers world-class treatment to residents of the Central Coast.”

We asked Kelly if her job is confronting – working with people who are so vulnerable?

“It is such a rewarding job! Most of the time when I tell people I’m training in Radiation Oncology, their first reaction is, ‘that must be a terrible job… so sad’.

“But no, we are aiming to cure the cancer in most of the patients that we treat. For the remaining patients who we treat in a palliative setting, we aim to improve their quality of life and reduce pain and suffering.”

For Kelly, there is nothing more rewarding than a hug from a patient after she has relieved their pain and improved their quality of life.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some days that are very difficult emotionally, where I have cried with my patients, or held it together until my patient leaves the room. But those days are infrequent, and I get through them by knowing that I have a wonderful family to go home to.”

We asked Kelly what inspired her to become a doctor.

“I was a sonographer for 10 years before I went back to university to study Medicine. I enjoyed my job as a sonographer, but I wanted more. I wasn’t totally satisfied with my small role in the diagnosis component of a patient’s journey. I wanted to actually help and treat patients, and I wanted to fix them! So I thought why not study Medicine? Then I thought I was crazy, as I had 4-year old twins when I went back to university! But I got through medical school, and from my very first day of being an intern in the Emergency Department at Gosford Hospital, I loved it. And I have loved it ever since.

“Radiation Oncology is a great specialty that provides a good mix of imaging, outpatient and inpatient consultations. You get to work very closely within a multi-disciplinary team and develop ongoing relationships with your patients. Most people don’t have much exposure to Radiation Oncology during medical school, but I do encourage medical students and junior doctors to go down to their departments and see how things work.”

We asked Kelly what she believes are the most important things we can do to reduce cancer in Indigenous Australians, and how AIDA can help.

“Early detection and screening programs. We need to engage the community to get our people to participate in screening programs and seek medical assistance early. Indigenous rates of cervical cancer are four times that of non-Indigenous women. We also have higher rates of breast cancer. Both of these cancers have screening programs for early detection, but unfortunately our participation in these programs is lower than it should be, and this needs to be targeted.

“Prevention – quit smoking programs to reduce the risk of lung cancer.

“Provide a culturally safe environment, where our Indigenous patients feel comfortable. I also think that all cancer departments should have a dedicated Indigenous cancer nurse, similar to an Aboriginal liaison/health worker, but dedicated to our cancer patients. They would function in the same role as a tumour-subsite clinical nurse consultant. We have started talks regarding this initiative at Gosford Hospital, but this is something I would like to see nationwide. This is something that AIDA could help with.”

Creating a culturally safe environment is something that Kelly is quite involved in. She is a part of the Cancer Australia working group, which establishes an optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with cancer. She will be going to a yarning morning in a few weeks to chat with the local community about how they can improve participation in breast screening programs on the Central Coast. Kelly is also part of the working group who are supporting a National Health and Medical Research Council grant for the development of a talking book for Indigenous cancer patients.

As AIDA has recently launched a new mentoring program, we asked Kelly if mentoring is important to her.

“Yes, mentoring is extremely important. There are so many challenges when going through medical school and during your junior years as a doctor. It’s really tough! Having someone that you can talk to, who has been through similar experiences, is invaluable. It also provides a role model and something to strive for.”

We wanted to know what Kelly’s dream job looks like.

“A staff specialist at the Central Coast Cancer Centre. Although Radiation Oncologist jobs are hard to come by!”

Kelly recently renewed her membership with AIDA. We asked her why she finds it important to be an AIDA member.

“Membership is vitally important for many reasons. Publications such as the Ward Round eNewsletter keeps you updated on what is happening within the medical profession and on a political level. AIDA provides a support network and contact with other Indigenous doctors. Being a member also gives you the opportunity to reconnect with our culture and establish friendships.”

We also asked Kelly what her advice would be to any Indigenous Australians who are thinking of becoming a medical doctor.

“You can do it!!! Do it! Do It! It is the best thing you will ever do! There is a lot of support out there to help get you through.

“Being the first Indigenous trainee, although something I am very proud of, it also saddens me. We need more Indigenous specialists! This is something I would like to use to inspire young Indigenous people to strive for. The more Indigenous doctors we have, and the more specialist we have, the more we can reach out to our communities and be role models for our young kids. My 12-year old twins are proud to be Indigenous, and have high aspirations – one wants to be a doctor, the other a judge. These dreams are achievable for all children, especially Indigenous children.”

Kelly has been to several AIDA conferences as a medical student and intern as well as one PRIDoC conference. She finds them to be valuable experiences in connecting with Indigenous culture, networking and working together towards closing the gap.

We asked if we will see her at the AIDA Conference in the Hunter Valley in September.

“Yes, I will be attending. I will also be participating in the presentation given by RANZCR, encouraging junior Indigenous doctors to join our specialty.”

We look forward to seeing Kelly later this year and hearing more about her medical journey and exciting specialty in Radiation Oncology.

21 Mar 2017