From Oamaru schoolboy to New Zealand Cancer Society medical director, oncologist Chris Jackson speaks to Ashley Smyth about everything from why he loves his home town, to the state of cancer treatment in New Zealand.
Q What are your connections with Oamaru. Do you return often?
I went to school at Oamaru South School, Oamaru Intermediate, and then Waitaki Boys’. I was captain of the debating and chess teams and was in all the school productions. I was in a band at school and we used to practise down at the Penguin Club. Oamaru gave so many diverse opportunities, and the teachers I had always supported me incredibly well. I always found the community very tight-knit and caring. My mum got sick when I was a senior at high school and my friends’ parents were kind and generous beyond description, in ways I could never repay. It was a great place to grow up.
I have brought my kids back to Oamaru a number of times. It has changed so much. They love the harbourside playground, where I can happily watch them while enjoying pizza and a beer next door. I have a number of family friends still in town and it is great to stay connected, although work gets in the way far too often.
Q Tell us about your employment background.
I went to medical school at Otago University which was fantastic. I didn’t realise how good it was at the time, until I went to London and realised that my training was as good if not better than many who had been to the best universities in Europe.
At Otago we were taught to problem-solve, to think and reason, and to care for people. Those skills set me up for success in London, where I learned from the world’s best oncologists at The Royal Marsden.
I came back to Dunedin in 2008 to work for Southern DHB and the University of Otago and have been here since. I was appointed as medical director of the Cancer Society in 2015, and have been working with Te Aho o Te Kahu the Cancer Control Agency, since it was launched in 2019.
Q What do you like about what you do?
The best thing about oncology is the people. The job feels meaningful because it is an opportunity to help people at a unique and challenging time of their lives. I think if you treat people with dignity and respect you can make an awful time more tolerable.
I also think if you use medicine to its limits, occasionally you can pull a rabbit out of a hat and really make a big difference to someone’s situation. That means being up to date with the latest research, participating in research studies, and fighting hard for access to best care and treatment from a systems perspective.
The staff in oncology are the best, also. It is a very caring and supportive environment of incredibly committed human beings. They can never seem to do enough for their patients, and despite cancer being what it is, maintain a warm and positive outlook, supporting people through tricky times.
Q What are the challenges?
The very real challenge is knowing that the system we have is not the best that it can be.
I am completely committed to the best outcomes for the people who trust me with their care, and that means doing everything I can for them. There are limits and constraints in our system.
When I look at our cancer survival statistics, or the treatment options in similar countries, I see and I know that we could and should do better. That motivated me to get into advocacy through cancer charities, and now through government work that came out of that advocacy.
If our system doesn’t keep getting better then we are falling behind.
Q What are your thoughts on the current state of cancer treatment in New Zealand, particularly in the South?
One of the things that my research has focused on is cancer outcomes around New Zealand, and how quality of care is affected by where you live. It has shown that there is a postcode lottery of cancer care.
That research led to our campaign for a national cancer action plan and a national cancer agency. Many of the themes and issues that were talked about in the lead up to the health reforms were ones that we had raised – that the DHB system is clunky, unresponsive, and unco-ordinated.
We have huge problems of geographic access to specialist care in the South, with a relatively sparsely distributed population. That means there is tension between seeing the most expert person, seeing someone close to home, and seeing someone soon.
There are trade-offs, but also some solutions that we haven’t fully explored. I think the health reforms are a huge opportunity.
Q What advice would you give to the family and support people of someone with a recent cancer diagnosis?
Never be frightened to listen. People affected by cancer often tell me how well-meaning people give them all sorts of advice. Some of it is helpful, but a lot is not. What people want is to be seen, to be heard, and the type of support that people need is often practical – the lawns, the rubbish bins need emptying, they might need a ride somewhere or their family might, a frozen meal. Don’t be frightened of saying to people affected – it’s good to see you, what do you want to talk about today? They might want to open up about cancer, or they might want to talk about something completely different. Peoples’ needs change according to the day, and its important to understand and respect that.
Q What do you like to do with your free time? If you have any . . .
Work has dominated my life in the last few years, but my wife has a busy new job where she is in Wellington four days a week. That means I have had to slow down a bit at work.
In my spare time I like to cook for my family, bake with my daughter, watch American political satire with my eldest son, and watch my youngest son play football on a Saturday morning (I used to play at King George Park as a kid). I occasionally pick up my guitar and like to stay connected to music.
Earlier this year I joined CrossFit which has been the most physically challenging thing I have ever done. I figured if I was going to tell my patients that they should do high-intensity exercise three hours per week then I should too.