resilience with kindness & purpose


Professor Anna Nowak

Professor Nowak’s current work purpose: Improved survival for brain cancer and mesothelioma patients, and improved wellbeing and symptom control for these patients.

This story traces Professor Nowak’s Resilient Leadership™ journey as she works towards achieving this purpose.


Anna’s purpose began with her early research into mesothelioma. Serendipity played a hand when she was medical oncologist and was given the brain cancer portfolio as well as lung and other cancers. She dropped her other areas of medical work. She is interested in this, and wanted to be a good doctor, improving wellbeing and symptom control.

Her research on brain cancer focusses on personal involvement with patients and carers – no lab. It can be easy to do something that gets immediate results. Her resilience comes from this, improving wellbeing and symptom control. It’s as simple as listening and dealing with the issues and staying calm. It’s being human – the person needed at the time. She is called an angel by some patients and carers. She matches what they need with what she delivers – information and behaviour. It can be difficult when this space and her research are challenging at the same time.

Her research delivers many dead ends, often from the lab.

Multiple concurrent projects, so if one project reaches a dead end (ie doesn’t work for the patient), she stays with the effects on the people. For example if a project didn’t work for 23 people but did in 3, then what about those 3? Why? This is not worth reviewing in the lab, stick to the people.

She doesn’t make mistakes in trials because she uses a good methodology. She trusts that. But she does get a sense during the trial if it’s going to work. If not, she decreases the number of patients, BUT ethically she has to help patients where that’s been promised. She gives them the choice then, and only uses medically stable patients to continue. Some trials add new information to what already works, so the patients do get some good out of it.

Her adrenaline comes from the funding success and overcoming the more common failures. Her clear purpose is a big help here – so sustaining.

Also sustaining is training the next generation – the PhD students who approach her department. The work is carried out 50% by the students and 50% by the assistants. Supervising the students is shared, co-supervising 2-3 supervisors per student. Students give more input over time. Supervisors meet in team meetings. Anna also trains medical oncologists as part of her work flow. Being involved in training builds her resilience – she gains energy from their enthusiasm and excitement and curiosity, and she LOVES the learning.

Patients give back too. They can be frightened and vulnerable but brave. Most people are good and kind.

She avoids drama. If there is drama, she brings people together to find common ground. And rescues victims of drama. In her team, eccentricity and bad behaviour can be encouraged which is not sustainable. However she has a good team now.

What next? She is too busy now – this is not sustainable. Perhaps in 5 years she will slow down somewhat. Comfortable to move to work in drug development.

Her children are aged 14 and 18. They and her husband don’t take her work seriously, which gives her a rest at home. She can be herself. Home is important to her. Her work doesn’t go there. She plays the flute every, even when travelling. She can be in the moment then – no multi-tasking!


From interview 18th September 2018 by Wendy Campbell.