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Making a difference

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja16.2111C1
Published online: 21 November 2016

Associate Professor Chris Karapetis has just cycled through Cambodia, raising funds for cancer research. It’s part of his determination to make a difference

CHRIS Karapetis was drawn to oncology at the end of his internship when he realised the impact he could have on cancer patients’ lives.

“As a student I’d liked everything, so when I finished my internship I decided to do some things I felt I hadn’t done enough of,” Associate Professor Karapetis tells the MJA.

“So in the first year of my residency I did a few months of general practice, a few months of obstetrics and gynaecology, and a few months of paediatrics. That helped me realise that it was cancer I was really interested in.

“I was fascinated by the biology of cancer, but I was also aware of the impact that it had on the general community. Cancer is now killing more people than cardiovascular disease, sadly.

“On the wards I see a degree of illness that made me realise that these patients were very sick, either from the disease itself or from the treatment.

“I could see that everything I said to them, or did for them really mattered.

“I didn’t get that same sense of impact in general practice,” A/Prof Karapetis says.

“At the end of each day I feel like I’ve done something good, made a big difference. That’s very satisfying.”

While acknowledging that medical oncology has a high emotional impact on himself and his colleagues at the Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, A/Prof Karapetis says that satisfaction and sense of purpose makes the low points worthwhile.

“I see people when they’ve already been diagnosed, even when their disease is very advanced and all we can offer is palliation, but I find that I’m still making a difference. Sometimes I bump into the families 10 or 15 years later and they still remember me.”

Apart from his clinical work, A/Prof Karapetis is a dedicated researcher, focused on predictive biomarkers, determining who will benefit the most from targeted treatments.

The role of research is one he emphasises with students.

“Doing research makes you question, it encourages you to improve,” he says.

“You can see that things can be better, and pushes you through to find that something better.”

Last month A/Prof Karapetis put away his scrubs, put his bike on a plane and joined a group of strangers on a quest to raise funds and awareness for gastrointestinal (GI) cancer.

The Cambodia Gutsy Challenge was a year in the planning, organised by the GI Cancer Institute.

Starting at Krong Siem Reap at the northern end of Tonle Sap, A/Prof Karapetis and his group — which also included sports broadcaster Tiffany Cherry — cycled 360 kms over 6 days, finishing in Phnom Penh. Along the way they raised over $51 000 for GI cancer research.

“Cambodia is a beautiful country,” A/Prof Karapetis tells the MJA. “I’d go back there in a heartbeat, and take my family.”

A keen cyclist, A/Prof Karapetis admits that a cold Melbourne winter meant that he didn’t get in quite as much training as perhaps he should have before such a trek.

“Hopefully, this will encourage me to keep it up and keep improving my fitness,” he says. “I wanted a physical challenge, and the ride was certainly arduous, but we had a lot of fun as well.

“We went in not really knowing what to expect, and the roads were either bumpy, or muddy and slippery.

“The first day’s ride was probably the hardest, but the surroundings were visually stunning.

“We would stop every 15 to 20 kilometres, usually in a village. The people were so excited to see us, they would line the street. There were so many happy children.”

The ride took the group to some of Cambodia’s most famous sights, including the ruins of Angkor Wat, the massive stone temple built during the Khmer Empire, but it was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, site of the “killing fields” of Pol Pot’s deadly Khmer Rouge regime, that had the most impact.

They were also given a tour of the infamous S-21 prison where almost 18 000 people were tortured before being killed and dumped in the killing fields. Only 17 people survived to walk out of the prison.

“I’ll never forget the man who guided us through the prison,” A/Prof Karapetis says. “They don’t hold anything back and it was quite gruesome. Unforgettable, which is the point.”

  • Cate Swannell


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