Dr Gail Halliday is currently the only female paediatric oncology consultant at the RVI Newcastle. NECCR has been finding out what inspired her to choose this career, and what it’s like to work at the front end of treating children with Cancer. This is a really honest and inspiring read, so thank you Gail! – We recognise that there are lots of other incredible women out there all doing great things for children’s cancer too, be it on the wards, in support services or in research.
Why did you choose to become a doctor?
I was exposed to medicine from a very young age as my dad was a Consultant on the Special Care Bay Unit. However I don’t think it was actually until my Dad was diagnosed with a soft tissue tumour of his pelvis, which required him to spend a long period of time in hospital, that I really considered medicine as a career option. During dad’s time as a patient we met a variety of doctors, some great, some good and some less good. I was struck by how important communication skills were, how good communication can make a patient and their family feel at ease at the most stressful of times and how poor communication can have the opposite effect. Given that I love to talk it was clearly the perfect career choice for me!
What made you focus on treating children with cancer?
To be honest I went to work on the Children’s Oncology Unit as a junior doctor with some trepidation, expecting that it would be a difficult and sad place to work, but within days I was hooked. The unit is not at all how people would imagine, it’ generally a happy place full of joy and laughter, not to mention a whole heap of sarcasm on the Teenage end of the ward! Because our patient numbers are small we have the opportunity to get to know our patients and their families really well, supporting them through some very difficult times and more often than not celebrating with them when treatment is successful. From a clinical point of view the work is stimulating, with a wide range of symptoms and signs to diagnose and treat and the opportunity to be involved in clinical research testing new therapies, which in recent years are offering true hope where there previously was none. I am also lucky to have incredibly supportive colleagues, which as most people know is the key to any good job.
What’s a typical day in your working life like?
I am really not sure there is a typical day in the life of a Paediatric Oncologist, but the thing I do most is talk! I talk to my patients and their families about their treatment, how well is working and its side-effects as well as how we will manage these. I talk to my colleagues about how to reach diagnoses as quickly as possible, how to best manage patient symptoms and what to do next in situations where the treatment is shown not to be working. I also talk to them about how to best support patients and their families and importantly how we also support each other. Alongside this I take the lead for teaching and training junior doctors and for the teenager cancer service at the Great North Children’s Hospital and I am principal investigator on a range of clinical trials testing new therapies.
Your job must be very stressful at times in that not every child can be cured of cancer. How do you cope with such tragedy day to day?
I think is important to begin by saying that more than 80% of children diagnosed with cancer in the UK will survive. This is clearly significantly better than the odds for adults with cancer, though it also goes without saying that this statistic remains not good enough, as it means that 1 in 5 of those who we meet will not be cured. Most often we know who these patients will be early in their treatment course and I endeavour to be honest with those families and to ensure that alongside therapy to prolong life, whilst maximising it’s quality, that the child or young person has the opportunity to achieve as many of the things they want to achieve in the time that they have available. Thanks to a fantastic team of Specialist nurses we are able to manage patients symptoms at the end of their lives in the place of their choosing, which most often their own homes, offering support to this time and beyond. I take solace in this and in the knowledge that the patients I care for are offered all therapies with a proven track record as well as any new therapies with promise undergoing testing in clinical trials throughout the UK. However the truth is that none of this can abate the sadness that you feel when a patient dies, though I am incredibly lucky to have fantastically supportive family, friends and colleagues, always there to give me a hug or a big glass of wine and there is always that smiling face of another patient on treatment who needs your ongoing support.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Truth be know it’s probably a combination of little things rather than one big one, seeing patients achieve goals they only dreamed of, like becoming a mum, or travelling abroad in the last few months of their life; or being nominated for an award out of the blue by a patient on a particularly tough day.
What are your hopes for the treatment of childhood cancer in the future?
– (How does being so close to a big research team help with this?)
My hopes are simple, that through clinical research we are able to cure more children and that those children will have less side effects from their therapy. We at the Great North Children’s Hospital are incredibly lucky to be located so close to and to have such good working relationships with the researchers at Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer, who fully appreciate the challenges we as the treating clinicians face.
What would you say to a girl considering a career in medicine or following in your footsteps?
I truly love my job and there aren’t many people who can honestly say that. Though I’d be lying if I said it was an easy career choice. My advice would be to talk to the person in the job you aspire to and to spend some time seeing the good bits and the less good bits. Importantly if you’ve decided that the job is for you and the team around you believe in you too, don’t let anything stand in your way.