AM honour ‘humbling’ after years of saving lives

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Saving a patient’s life is something most doctors would expect to do throughout their career without reward.

But for Associate Professor Michael Penniment, one of Australia’s leading radiation oncology experts, his lifesaving skills have led to him being made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2021 Australia Day honours list.

A/Prof Penniment, who works for Icon, Australia's largest cancer care provider, said he was “very humbled” by the honour.

“This (the award) was all started by a patient that I cured about 20 years ago,” he said.

“I think it’s taken him about three or four years to get people together and go through the whole process. It’s just so humbling – caring for patients at the grassroots level, that’s ultimately what we do and helping to make people better.

“In my profession I do know a few people who have had honours, and those are the people I have really looked up to, their body of work is amazing. And not just doctors, but people who work for cancer charities, they’ve always seemed so amazing, and to be even considered to be in their company, it’s quite extraordinary.”

He added, laughing, “I did joke to a colleague that if he had done that original consult 20 years ago, he might be the one with the AM today instead of me.”

Throughout his career, A/Prof Penniment has been dedicated to ensuring patients in rural and regional areas receive the absolute best cancer treatment available.

He said he realised the importance of caring for people in remote areas when he was an intern in Adelaide.

“We would have people come down from Darwin and quite often they had no diagnosis or sometimes not even any idea why they were there.

“It could take three to four weeks to get a cancer diagnosis and I really felt for them – they all had jobs and families and were a long way from home, and I’m not even talking about people living remotely, these people were from a major capital city,” he said. 

“And of course, we had Indigenous patients, and for them sometimes they were told ‘just get on a plane and go to Adelaide’ and for all the fear and disorganisation that caused, I felt we could do better.”

As a founder of Darwin’s Alan Walker Cancer Centre (AWCC), A/Prof Penniment has led the way for research into improving Indigenous cancer care – highlighting the need for culturally sensitive modes of care and reducing geographical and cultural barriers in accessing cancer treatment.

“I also spent a year in Townsville as well and we built a centre up there that serviced remote areas, we had fly-in, fly-out clinics, and that was back in 1995,” he said.

“I guess looking back we were really at the forefront of a lot of things, we just didn’t realise it.”

A/Prof Penniment said the Darwin cancer centre, and the changes it had made to people’s lives, was a highlight of his career.

“Before we opened the centre in Darwin, the rate of cancer patients receiving radiation treatment was at just 22 percent of patients and even lower for Indigenous patients, but now that’s up to 49 percent – just that alone, makes me feel so proud and excited, my team up there do an amazing job, I’m so proud of them,” he said.

“To see how much the centre has grown in the past 10 years, we’ve had full employment, the research that happens there, and to have doubled access to treatment for Indigenous patients – that alone would have done it for me.”

A/Prof Penniment added the COVID-19 pandemic had brought telemedicine to the forefront.

“For a lot of patients, we still need that face-to-face meeting, that is the gold standard, but there are so many other patients that we can see with telemedicine – it might be a patient who has recovered but needs a bit of reassurance, or we might just need to have a quick look at things,” he said.

“A lot of Australians may not appreciate just how good we are at that kind of thing. We’re really world leaders when it comes to remote healthcare, and I guess COVID just focused that for all of us.”

With a passion for the advancement of radiation therapy to benefit current and future patients, A/Prof Penniment has also been instrumental in the opening of the Australian Bragg Centre for Proton Therapy Centre in Adelaide. 

“It will be the first in the Southern Hemisphere, it will be like the amazing centres they have in London or Boston in the US,” he said.

“This type of treatment is the future for radiation oncology, the treatment is so targeted with minimal side-effects, it’s absolutely personalised medicine – even if you have cancer in an awkward spot, the proton therapy will just nail it, with minimal side effects.”

On top of his clinical work, A/Prof Penniment has an active interest in research, quality improvement and governance, as the lead for The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists Particle Therapy Group. He is also a member of several leading cancer trial groups, including the American Society of Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology, and Trans Tasman Oncology Group (TROG). 

A/Prof Penniment said being awarded an AM was “still sinking in” but that he was “very grateful” to all his colleagues and patients.

“At the end of the day, it’s something I never expected – it was very exciting and I just feel very, very humbled by it all,” he said.

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