Q&A with our Cancer Prevention and Research Director, Melissa!

Posted 8 Apr 2019.


We caught up with our Cancer Prevention and Research Director, Melissa, to chat about her 20 year work anniversary with us and her progression from Intern to Director - check it out below!


CCWA: Hi Melissa, can you tell us how your career with us has progressed over the past 20 years?

Melissa: Can I just say I can't believe it's been 20 years! It's gone so fast.

In 1998 I began working at Cancer Council as a student, completing 100 hours on placement whilst studying for a Bachelor of Science. I was tasked with working on the Bowel Cancer Screening Project.

After my placement, I received a 6-month Australian Health Promotion Association funded graduate scholarship commencing in March 1999. I worked on developing two information resources for schools, one for primary schools and one for secondary schools. We would get many calls from students looking for cancer information for their projects on cancer and we really didn't have anything appropriate, so I developed these resources.

When the idea was put to the CEO at time, Clive Deverall, he agreed CCWA needed an ongoing schools project officer.

I was offered this role, in this position I was initially responsible for teacher training to support the role out of the Kidskin (sun protection) resources that were developed as part of a partnership research project with UWA and Curtin universities.

Later I took on SunSmart schools recruitment and the volunteer speakers program. I assisted my manager Jude Comfort to organise the cancer update lecture series and the first state cancer conference in 2000.

While planning the conference, I suggested to the CEO at the time, Mike Daube, that we include a Welcome to Country. Ben Taylor and Daniel Garlett were the first Aboriginal elders to give a Welcome to Country at any Cancer Council WA event.

I did have a setback early on in my career with CCWA. The SunSmart Coordinator role that looked after the SunSmart campaign was vacated so I applied for it - I don't even think I got an interview.

I was pretty disappointed at the time, then a few months later my manager announced she was taking 12 months leave to travel. There was an internal EOI process, so I applied for that and I was appointed to act in the Education Services Manager role for 12 months. I was really thrilled!

I really do believe one door may close, which can be really disappointing, but sometimes that's because another door might be about to open. So it's important not to have your back to the door that's about to open!

Just as my 12 months as acting manager was coming to an end I started to consider what my future was and whether I should start to look for a new job.

I'd really enjoyed the chance to act in the manager role and it gave me a new set of skills, along with new ambition and direction for my working life. Around this time, the manager of the Research and Projects Team (soon to be renamed the Cancer Smart team) resigned. I applied for the Cancer Smart Manager position in 2003 and was successful.

The Cancer Smart Team has had many focus areas over the years - ranging from bowel cancer screening (the irony was not lost on me that I was now managing a project that I worked on as a student) to occupational cancers.

In April 2018, Terry Slevin resigned from the position he had held for over 20 years as Education and Research Director. The division was renamed Cancer Prevention and Research to better reflect the work of the division and the Director role was advertised.

I applied and in July 2018 and was appointed to the role of Cancer Prevention and Research Director.


CCWA: What kind of opportunities did we provide to help you further your skills and expertise?

Melissa: As soon as I got the job of Cancer Smart Manager I thought I'd better get the qualification the criteria suggested. I enrolled in my Master of Public Health pretty much straight away.

CCWA supported my studies by giving me three hours a week paid study leave to attend the course units that fell in work time. I would complete one or two units a semester and was going pretty well.

I'd been in the job about three years when I needed to take maternity leave for my first child, Owen. I stopped studying and after 9 months away from the office I was able to return part-time at 0.6 over four days - increasing to 0.7 until 2008 when my second child Mardi was born. This time I took 12 months leave and retuned again at 0.7 FTE.

In June 2008, I was heavily pregnant when I sat the exam for what I thought was my last MPH unit before doing my research project - I was wrong.

I deferred my studies for a year, then another year and in the 10th year after initially enrolling I decided to forego the project and complete four more units. With the support of CCWA I managed to complete four units in one semester with a mixture of study leave and annual leave - 10 years after enrolling I finally graduated in 2013 with a Masters degree.

I worked part-time at 0.7 FTE until June 2017, when I felt I might be missing out on opportunities to further my career. So I started working full-time from 1 July 2017.

Throughout my career I was encouraged to write papers and present my work at conferences, I was invited to meetings with senior bureaucrats, stakeholders, politicians, and staff. I was encouraged to take on roles in professional organisations such as the Australian Health Promotion Association. I was provided opportunities to lecture to tertiary students. I was also able to attend some management and leadership courses over the years.

Every year I received a performance review to reflect on my work and role and plan for the future.

CCWA allowed me to maintain and grow my professional skills as well as be a mum, daughter and wife.

I've been able to enjoy a sensible work-life balance, during my time with the organisation I've had kids and have been able to work part-time when I had other commitments, including being the coach for the year 4 netball team!


CCWA: What do you value most about working with us?

Melissa: CCWA is life-friendly, not just family-friendly. It's a flexible working environment where you are expected to work hard, but in doing so are rewarded with flexibility to ensure staff have a great work-life balance.

Public health is a female dominated profession, and CCWA is a female dominated workplace, which has meant they put in place support for employees with families and life commitments.

I have personally benefitted from this. After having my children I thought I would not be able to stay in the Cancer Smart Manager role and work part-time, it's pretty rare to be a part-time manager.

It was decided I could work in the office four shorter days (9.30-4.30) and my team new I was available on my day off if something urgent came up. I was able to walk my kids to school nearly every day of their primary school lives and get to work by 9.30, I'm so grateful for that.

I haven't missed a school athletics carnival, swimming carnival, concert or merit certificate award.

CCWA: How would you describe our organisational culture?

Melissa: The culture is great! There's an incredibly worthy cause at the centre of what we do which gives us all a shared purpose.

I have always seen CCWA as an organisation that nurtures staff and helps build the capacity of staff. I really believe staff live our values and you see that in how we communicate, plan and deliver our work across teams, divisions and the organisation. We're all part of a big ‘team' and that's what makes it work.


CCWA: How has our organisation changed over the years?

Melissa: Cancer Council has changed a lot over the 20 years - the most obvious is we've grown in size! CCWA has been built over 60 years, with many new projects and staff joining us over the years to work towards our vision of a cancer free future.

I recall one Christmas lunch, I think it was 1999, all staff went to a sit down lunch, across two tables at a pokey restaurant in West Perth - that's just not possible today.

As an organisation we have always been good smoke-free and SunSmart role models, as the evidence about cancer risk factors grew, we added a few others to our list such as not providing alcohol at our events and celebrations.

There have also been many changes in what we know causes cancer. In the 20 years I've been here the evidence around what causes cancer has become clearer and stronger, risk factors have been added to the list, such as alcohol and cancer, processed meat and bowel cancer, HPV and cervical cancer (plus a few others) and occupational exposures like diesel engine emissions. And just last year, welding fume was categorised as a group 1 cancer-causing agent.

This means we can be really clear about our cancer prevention messages to the community, politicians and other decision makers to reduce the incidence and impact of cancer.


CCWA: What would you say to someone who is considering applying for a job with us?

Melissa: DO IT! It's an incredibly rewarding place to work and we're all striving to achieve the same thing - a cancer free future.

Make sure your CV shines bright, and if you miss out the first time - keep applying! (and ask for feedback.)


Are you interested in helping us work towards our vision of a cancer free future? 

Check out our careers page to view our vacant roles and find out how you can join our team! 

Found in:  News - 2019 | View all news