Providing light in a dark space

Professor Bogda Koczwara AM

A strong focus on the health and well-being of a person with cancer from the time of diagnosis until the end of life is an increasing priority for over a million Australians. The contribution of Professor Bogda Koczwara AM (BM, BS ’90) in the field of cancer diagnosis, treatment, survivorship care and research is profound.

Professor Koczwara’s passion for helping others likely stems from personal experience. With martial law announced in Poland in response to the growing influence of the Solidarity movement, her father was allowed to enter Australia. Professor Koczwara and her mother waited two years to receive the green light in 1983 to reunite as a family in Adelaide.

“I had completed my first year of medical studies in Poland, so I was hoping to continue in Adelaide but found initially that universities had no interest in accepting me,” says Professor Koczwara.

“Whereas at Flinders, people were actually quite open minded and interested in figuring out how they could accommodate this strange person who had limited command of English.

“I didn’t choose Flinders, Flinders accepted me despite my limitations.”

It was Professor Ann Crocker, now retired, who gave Professor Koczwara her chance through a fortuitous meeting at the Registry Office. With Professor Koczwara, or Bogda the young immigrant at the time, in tears with no idea how to convince people that she was worthy of continuing her education, Professor Crocker hatched a plan that eventually saw Professor Koczwara accepted into Flinders Medical School.

“I remember seeing somebody wearing a t-shirt with a Solidarity logo and I knew that I was in the right place, where people were interested in what was happening in my homeland,” says Professor Koczwara.

“That was incredibly significant for me. I have many, many happy memories from my time in medical school. Clinical care and research, junior people, senior people all worked together as one team. And I was part of the team, even though I was merely a medical student, and that was quite phenomenal to me then.”

Professor Koczwara was accepted into physician training at Flinders, but to do oncology, she had to either move interstate or overseas given the limited training positions available locally.

“I opted to travel the world and ended up training at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, in Buffalo, NY, one of the oldest comprehensive cancer centres in the world,” she says.

“I stayed there for nearly four years and eventually returned back to Flinders – I really wanted to work in oncology and I really wanted to work at Flinders.”

Flinders didn’t have an oncology department at the time, so Professor Koczwara, with the knowledge she had gained and evident community need, took the opportunity to create one.

The Flinders Department of Medical Oncology is now well established, with Professor Koczwara building the service up from being the sole oncologist in the late 90s to a thriving team of approximately 10 oncologists, trainee oncologists, clinical trial staff, nursing and allied health providers that services the southern suburbs of Adelaide.

The Department supported one of the first Nurse Practitioners roles in cancer in Australia and the first cancer survivorship program to address the growing need for support for those who survive cancer.

“My time as a student at Flinders, taught me that change was possible if you put your mind to it,” says Professor Koczwara.

“I came to Flinders as somebody who in many places would be considered on the margins of society.

“I was an immigrant. I was a woman. I had an unpronounceable name. I could barely speak English.

“But at Flinders, I was seen as a person with potential and I learned there was room for me and for what I could offer.”

Among her many leadership roles, Professor Koczwara is a past president of the two peak professional bodies in cancer in Australia; the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia and the Medical Oncology Group of Australia.

She is an internationally recognised expert in the field of cancer survivorship with her research published in more than 240 peer-reviewed journal articles, 10 books/book chapters, and more than 300 conference presentations nationally and internationally.

“I have an enormous amount of gratitude for how Flinders prepared me when I was at the very bottom of the totem pole,” says Professor Koczwara.

“It’s easy to reap the benefits when you’re more senior, but it’s how you treat those who are the least powerful in society that defines you.”

Professor Koczwara has upheld that mantra to no end, supervising more than 20 honours and postgraduate research students, while also establishing the Australia and Asia Pacific Clinical Oncology Research Development Workshop (ACORD) program, an international collaborative which has to date trained more than 300 junior cancer clinicians to be better clinical researchers across Australia and Asia.

“My investment in the next generation is my is my greatest accomplishment,” she says.

“I can think of a number of individuals who are truly outstanding leaders in medicine today and if I have had a small way of supporting them on their path, then my job is done.”

Professor Bogda Koczwara AM was awarded a 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award for her distinguished leadership in the medical oncology profession and health services research.

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