Blood cancers

Psychologist is bringing cancer support to the bush


Dr Kate Fennell is a clinical psychologist, behavioural scientist and research fellow in the University of South Australia’s Sansom Institute for Health Research.

She has been awarded the Leslie (Les) J. Fleming Churchill Fellowship to investigate sustainable methods of improving the health and wellbeing of rural cancer survivors.

Can you describe the aim of your research in 10 words?

To find new ways to improve outcomes for rural cancer survivors

What have you discovered in this area so far?

People who live in remote areas of Australia and are diagnosed with cancer are 35% more likely to die within five years of their diagnosis than people with the same disease who live in a city.

In addition to facing barriers to treatment, they also have very limited access to support to assist them with post-treatment challenges (e.g. fatigue, fear of recurrence) and to help them change their lifestyles (e.g. exercise, healthy eating) to reduce their chance of cancer recurring.

To help rectify this inequality, I have quantified differences in Australian rural/urban cancer survivor outcomes to determine intervention targets, and identified what Australian rural cancer survivors and their carers perceive as their most pressing unmet needs and how they would like them to be addressed.

You’ll be travelling to the US and The Netherlands as part of the Churchill Fellowship. What are the opportunities there for your research?

The United States is leading the world in tailoring self-management and supportive care interventions to meet the particular needs of rural cancer survivors in accessible and culturally appropriate ways.

Dutch institutions are advanced in delivering comprehensive, cost-effective self-management programs for cancer survivors who have completed treatment, via the internet.

My research will focus on how they do this, with the view to trialing similar interventions in Australia. I will also look out for innovative ways of breaking down rural cancer patients’ barriers to accessing optimal treatment in a timely fashion.

I may extend the scope of my research to rural Canada and rural Scotland to do that.

What aspect of this research excites you the most?

Having the chance to learn about novel ways that rural cancer survivors are being supported overseas, how their rural populations differ from ours, and importantly, when I return, the opportunity to test out whether similar, new interventions can have meaningful impacts on the lives of rural cancer survivors in Australia.

What is your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve through your research?

The reasons rural people have worse cancer outcomes than their urban counterparts are complex, but ultimately I’d like to see that the outcomes of rural cancer patients and survivors are equal to those experienced by people with the same disease who live in the city, and that everyone who is faced with a diagnosis of cancer has access to appropriate and acceptable forms of support no matter where they live.

How far is your work from impacting patient care?

Various aspects of my work are already impacting patient care. I have developed online interventions such as the Country Cancer Support website, designed to make newly diagnosed rural South Australian cancer patients more motivated and confident to travel promptly to access optimal cancer treatment and relevant support services.

In coming weeks we will also be launching Rural Cancer Stories – a YouTube Channel which will provide online peer support and evidence-based advice to rural people across Australia who can’t access a face-to-face support group and/or feel alienated by supportive care materials that focus on the experiences and resources available to people who live in major cities.

What is your biggest research hurdle?

Unfortunately, accessing funding to develop and test these sorts of interventions is time consuming and often unsuccessful. This is likely to be one of the greatest obstacles I face upon my return.

 Who has inspired you and why?

Lots of different people inspire me, for different reasons. One of my favorite aspects of my job is getting out into rural communities and speaking to people affected by cancer – the people my research aims to help.

Every time I do that I am reminded why what I’m doing is important, and find myself filled with inspiration. I’m also really inspired by academics and clinicians whose number one priority is making other people’s lives better.

I’m really lucky to be supervised by Professor Ian Olver AM who is undoubtedly one of those people.

 What other interests help create work-life balance for you?

I am grateful that my job allows me to do some of the things I love most – to work with inspiring people, constantly learn new things and travel both around Australia and overseas.

I grew up on a farm near Streaky Bay, 650km from Adelaide, so returning there to see my family and friends is something else that I love to do.

The next adventure my husband and I have planned is a four-day trail ride through the Victorian High Country. I’m not great at horse riding so that will be interesting.

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