Impotence and optimism: the life of a cancer scientist

A medical researcher's career is one of frustration and melancholy. What keeps them going?


It is impossible to describe the deep frustration – impotence even – that comes with watching someone close die from a disease you have spent years researching.

It doesn’t come close to the fear and turmoil of those facing their own mortality. But staring such a personal emblem of failure in the face is a special kind of torture. 

A simple, entirely reasonable question from my young daughter crystallised this uncomfortable insight for me. Why couldn’t I just go to the lab and make some medicine to cure her grandmother of the lung cancer slowly killing her? Yet here was their beloved Nonna dying, and there was nothing I could do.

Add to this emotional turmoil the erosion of funding, public rejection of expertise and a political climate unfriendly to science and you can see how even the most enthusiastic scientist might be sapped of motivation. What keeps us going in this climate? Medical research can be exhausting. I’ve seen countless colleagues sacrifice family, relationships and mental health on the dais of scientific success. We forgo time with our own families so that others less fortunate get to spend more time with theirs.

Survival rates for many cancers have been increasingly steady for years – a direct outcome of huge research efforts. The years of human life represented by those statistics is something of which we are collectively proud.

But those broad improvements aren’t always reflected at the individual level, particularly for diseases like lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. When medicine runs out of answers, as it did in my family, it creates fertile ground for paleo prophets of false hope.

"Medical research can be exhausting. I’ve seen countless colleagues sacrifice family, relationships and mental health on the dais of scientific success."

At the hospital with my kids’ Nonna, I bit my tongue as well-meaning visitors tried to help. Who was I to criticise? As a symbol of the failure of modern medicine, my opinions no longer held any weight. Science just can’t offer the same narrative of hope. A growing frustration started to cloud my motivation with anger, impatience and sadness. I became impatient with a system that has me spending months every year writing mostly fruitless applications for research funding, wasting hours filling out useless paperwork.

Each year, Australian medical researchers spend an estimated 550 working hours applying to our federal funding scheme. This system is so stretched that less than 15 % of applications were approved in 2015.

Friends and colleagues, long frustrated by having more ideas than funding, are leaving in droves. In the past year alone, at least six colleagues have either left research or moved overseas.

How has the value of science in Australia been so undermined? The benefits aren’t always immediately visible and predicting future risks is difficult. So in some ways the problem is one of near-term thinking.

Still, there is no quick fix. More funding would help but it is not the only solution. We need to convince voters and politicians to see research funding as an investment, not a cost.

Scientists have a responsibility here, too. Politicians will fund us if there are votes in it. We have to engage people with the impact of our work to reverse the erosion of confidence.

So how did I navigate my way out of the distracting, corrosive fog of introspection? Triggered by the revelations of two friends with serious illness, I found a way to harness the melancholy and anger for motivation to work harder and smarter.

And spending some time in the mountains reminded me of an important mental discipline: When skiing or riding through a forest, your body follows your mental focus – you have to train yourself to focus on the gaps, not the trees. Bouncing off trees is painful, and it stops you getting down the mountain. I realised that neither were helping me, or the people I care about.

Dr Darren Saunders is a senior lecturer in medicine at UNSW whose latest research into pancreatic cancer was published in Cancer and Metabolism. World Cancer Day was 4 February.

A longer version of this piece first ran on ABC Online.