Alan Coates: an appreciation

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The last 50 years have seen major changes in cancer management. There have been great advances in prevention, early diagnosis and cost effective management with much emphasis on “holistic” care involving multidisciplinary teams with a commitment to the best possible care for all phases of cancer management including terminal care. Underpinning these developments has been a major emphasis on understanding community and social causes of cancer, based on epidemiology and psycho-sociology. These advances have led to the current mantra that the best possible cancer care is evidence-based medicine, built on sound clinical trials and good quality statistical evaluation. Many talented and dedicated clinicians have had major roles in these developments. High on this list is Alan Coates. Medical oncologist, statistician and clinical researcher, Alan has played leading roles in clinical management, clinical trials and administrative excellence in two major cancer fields, melanoma and breast cancer. In 2002, Alan was awarded membership to the Order of Australia for “services to medicine in the field of oncology, and particularly through breast cancer research”.

In 1978 Alan came to the Sydney Melanoma Unit (SMU) from the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, at age 36, already with an enviable reputation for diligence, competence and commitment, both as a clinician and a clinical researcher. He immediately impressed his colleagues, especially Gerry Milton and myself, with his emphasis on properly designed clinical trials, rather than the more ‘ad hoc’ approach current in those days.  There is no doubt that Alan, who subsequently became research director of the SMU, played a major role in the worldwide reputation gained by the SMU research program during his years with the unit. Woe betide the clinician or researcher who made a ‘seat of the pants’ assessment of a clinical or research problem in Alan’s presence.

During his years with SMU, Alan found time to make major contributions to cancer research and clinical care generally as president of Clinical Oncological Society of Australia, director and deputy chairman of the Australia New Zealand Breast Cancer Trials Group and internationally, as the first elected non-US oncologist member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Of course, there were numerous memberships of Health Department committees, oncology groups and the National Health and Medical Research Council. More than 200 papers published in peer-reviewed journals attest to Alan’s research and clinical trial productivity.

No record of Alan’s contributions would be complete without acknowledgment of his excellence as a cancer clinician. His patients and nurses are effusive about his clinical care and commitment to management of the difficult problems facing oncologists dealing with advanced cancer.  “Calm”, “reasoned”, “unflappable” with a fine sense of humour are some of the comments of his patients. 

Alan’s retirement from The Cancer Council Australia marks the end of yet another chapter in a brilliant career. His achievements in furthering the cause of cancer control as head of the nation’s peak independent cancer organisation are too extensive to list here. I have no doubt Alan will continue to make a significant impact on cancer control through his ongoing contribution to research and academia.

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