Member Spotlight: Associate Professor Haryana Dhillon

Associate Professor Haryana Dhillon is a behavioural scientist and psycho-oncologist at the University of Sydney, working with people who are living with cancer or working through cancer survivorship. She is also Co-Chair of the OXTOX trial and one of the earliest pioneers of the AGITG.

We sat down with Haryana as she shared with us career achievements, how she became involved in the AGITG and her favourite pastimes!

About me

I derive a lot of joy in my role as an academic behavioural scientist at the University of Sydney. Working with collaborators locally, nationally, and globally enriches my life and understanding of many things, teaching others about research and seeing them grow – developing into independent researchers – are some of the things I do in my work. I’m a partner, parent, child, and dog walker, living between the intensity of inner-city Sydney and the peace of the Liverpool Plains in North West NSW. I am also a community member doing my best to live up to the adage that the revolution will arrive in the form of middle-aged, silver-haired women wearing glasses.

What inspired you to become a psycho-oncologist?

I’m not sure I set out to become a psycho-oncologist. Although, having experienced the relatively rapid death of my Dad from wide-spread metastatic cancer when I was a teenager gave me first-hand experience of cancer’s impact on individuals, families, and the wider community, and the curiosity to want to understand how to make the experience less painful.

Psycho-oncology, at its heart, is about helping people to live as well as they possibly can for their remaining lives, something I feel passionate about. Psycho-oncology requires a lot of listening, which is something I enjoy – people are endlessly fascinating and often surprising. One other thing I love about the work we do, is the powerful effect that can be achieved with some seemingly very simple tools.

What achievement are you most proud of?

In my work I am most proud of the CHALLENGE trial – an international randomised controlled trial evaluating the effect of a three-year lifestyle intervention on disease-free survival in people with colon cancer. This study, a labour of love, has been recruiting since 2009 and still holds the promise of delivering a large effect on the disease-free and overall survival of people treated for colon cancer. In my personal life, I am most proud of the wonderful family and friends I have been lucky enough to gather around me.

Why did you become involved in the AGITG?

Early in my career I worked on AGITG studies and was involved in some of the early growth of the group. However, I have stayed involved because AGITG is a marvellous multi-disciplinary group of experts dedicated to improving outcomes for people with GI cancers and, really, who wouldn’t want to be involved?

Are there particular areas of GI psycho-oncology research that you believe hold most promise for the future?

The key areas GI psycho-oncology research likely to have the greatest impact on the people living with the disease are:

  1. implementation of routine screening for distress, backed by a clinical pathway to guide care;
  2. implementation of patient reported outcome assessment in routine practice to reduce symptom burden;
  3. lifestyle interventions (diet and exercise) to reduce incidence of GI cancers, reduce recurrences in those that have been diagnosed and treated, reduce symptoms, and to reduce co-morbid illnesses;
  4. improved communication tools from point of diagnosis to survivorship and end of life (whenever that may be).

Having been with the AGITG for as long as you have, what is a moment or experience that has stayed with you?

The Annual Scientific Meeting in 2000, held in Coolum, is a standout memory for me. It was an incredibly collegial meeting, with new trials underway including C-07, feisty discussion and plenty of dancing. The most memorable part were the people. In 2000, there was a cohort of young oncologists, many of whom had recently returned from overseas fellowships, attending for the first time and really keen to be involved. Happily, they did become involved and many are either current or former leaders in AGITG. After all, it is all about the people.

If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?

Daggy as it may sound, I would most like to share a meal with all the people I love. So, dinner with family and friends, celebrating life, love and diversity is what I most crave.

If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Food isn’t terribly important to me (other than its role in ensuring I’m not hangry all the time) so I find this one difficult to answer. At a push, I guess dhal and saffron rice.

What are your top three hobbies?

Walking with Reefa, our dog; he takes me on many interesting walks with plenty of time observe things which bring tiny joyful moments. Handcrafts, mostly knitting, crochet, and mending. Most of all I like to grow things – gardens, people, communities, ideas, and even cooperative trials groups.

A/Prof Haryana Dhillon with Reefa.