A champion for trial access

Haematologist Professor Chan Cheah is driven to give Perth the best access to world-class trials and research around lymphoma and leukemia.

By Ara Jansen

Studying medicine seemed like a solid and sensible place to start for a young Professor Chan Cheah. He liked chemistry, its logic, precision and how things made sense. He’d start with that and figured, if he didn’t like medicine, he’d just move on to something else. 

After a bit of a dusty start, somewhere along the line though, medicine did capture his heart. He became enamoured with haematology and ended up specialising in lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Then Chan became determined to give WA patients every fighting chance through his championing of prioritising access to clinical trials. 

Graduating from medicine in at UWA in 2003, Chan did his post-graduate training at Fremantle Hospital and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, followed by fellowships in lymphoma at Peter MacCallum and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“The first few years of medicine were very dry and textbook based and I didn’t get to see patients,” says Chan. “I took a gap year and taught English in Japan. I felt re-focussed after that and the last three years were really clinical. I got into the hospital environment and that’s when I really started to like it, because I really liked the people side of it.”

He didn’t know what specialty he wanted to go into but he knew it wasn’t surgery or emergency medicine. After being exposed to haematology, he was hooked. Working at Fremantle Hospital he looked after people with acute leukemia, gaining hands-on experience. 

“We would treat them with chemotherapy, and they would come to clinic six months later. I don’t think there’s anything in medicine that comes close to how satisfying that is. I personally find that haematology is one of the areas where you can make the biggest impact on someone’s life. You can take someone at death’s door and give them their lives back.

“With haematology you can be a clinician or laboratory based and the variety can be interesting. It is one of the most research-heavy specialties – and that is what I am really interested in.”   

While Melbourne has recently been considered the country’s haematology centre of gravity, Chan was naturally drawn there during his training. He considers his years at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre like finishing school. 

“It was a fantastic experience. It introduced me to the world of research and was a big part of what made me. I made connections there which led me to the US and the biggest cancer hospital in the world, the MD Anderson Cancer Center.”

He wasn’t certain he would return to Perth but what he learnt through his work interstate and overseas only served to confirm that he wanted to bring his knowledge home with the desire for it to benefit people in the state he was born and grew up in. 

Chan came back to Perth in 2015 and three years later founded Blood Cancer Research WA. The charity supports fellows and nurses employed at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Linear Clinical Research and Hollywood Private Hospital. It has drawn talent from around the world to work in Perth and catalysed the rapid expansion in access to clinical trials for WA patients, delivering the most promising new treatments, years before commercial availability. It has improved the lives of patients living with these disorders.

Chan is also a Clinical Professor of Haematology at UWA and immediate past chair of the Australasian Lymphoma Alliance. Last September, he was named Cancer Council WA’s 2023 Cancer Researcher of the Year for his outstanding contribution to cancer research.

“I came back to make thing better here,” he says. “I wanted people to have access to as many clinical trials as possible. Our work has given people here access to trials equal to anywhere in the world. It has also put Perth on the map in terms of being a centre for research excellence in this area. People notice what we are doing here now and that is leading to more money for further research.”

Chan suggests there are other cities where it would have been much easier to set up shop. But as a first generation Australian to Chinese-Malaysian parents who migrated to Perth, Chan had a “great place to grow up” and the city has given him a lot. He also saw a need clamouring to be filled. 

“Not long after I took my first consultant job at SCGH, I had a young patient with terribly aggressive lymphoma. I had a strong connection to him and his family. His chemotherapy didn’t work and neither did the only trial I had available at the time. 

“Unfortunately, he did not survive his lymphoma. I remember thinking ‘this isn’t how it should be’. We should have had six trials to offer him, not just one. I’m going to create something to give the next person that.”

While not easy, he says the key to a successful foundation involves plenty of vision and elbow grease. That’s combined with a great team and plenty of support on all fronts. He’s also had to become good at PR and talking about his work. 

“My wife says when I get focussed on something, I develop tunnel vision and become oblivious to other things. This is something I am passionate about, so I am a bit like a dog with a bone.

“In my experience, tenacity and determination are often more important than talent. The persistence to keep at it in the face of adversity is probably my greatest asset. If one path is closed, then I look for another.”

An intrinsically shy and quiet guy who is largely an introvert, Chan says medicine and his desire to help people have brought him out of his shell. Speaking in public, talking about the foundation and dealing with people from all walks of life are skills he had to learn and says they are aspects which have had a big influence in shaping his personality.

“There’s no point being the best at anything if you can’t tell the story. Life is about telling stories.”

Part of Chan’s story is being an avid cyclist. He loves riding and is up at 5am most days to hit the road. He usually rides in groups and says there’s no shortage of people to ride with across Perth, especially fellow medicos. Mixing work and pleasure, he’s cycled in different parts of the world, usually in places he’s attending a conference. It’s Chan’s way of keeping fit, bolstering positive mental health and staying connected.

Family Cheah – Kylie and boys James and Miles – enjoy adventuring around WA in their caravan. The family all have bikes, the boys also like to game and, on the whole, Chan says, they probably do what every other family does. 

“We try and model good behaviour, healthy eating and exercise. We teach them to be able to express themselves well. We’re big on values and communicating what our core values are. We also teach them to be kind to themselves and each other, their friends and family. Kylie and I have lunch together every Friday – and I look forward to that every week.”