Alannah Smrke is a Medical Oncologist at BC Cancer – Vancouver Centre who treats sarcoma and gynecological cancers. She completed her Medical Oncology training at the University of British Columba and completed a fellowship in Sarcoma at The Royal Marsden Hospital in London, UK.
Q: Can you share a bit about your academic journey and how it led you to work at BC Cancer?
I completed medical school and internal medicine residency at McMaster and did my residency in internal medicine there as well. I was always interested in oncology as it combined my undergrad in Chemistry, but equally important was the ‘art’ of medicine – long-term relationships with patients facing serious diagnoses. During my medical oncology residency, I developed an interest in sarcomas– both gynecologic sarcomas and non-gynecologic sarcomas. This interest led me to pursue a clinical fellowship at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation in London, UK under the supervision of Dr. Robin Jones. The fellowship was mainly focused on a number of different trials, including combination immunotherapy.
After doing my fellowship in London, I returned to Canada hoping to bring back the knowledge and skills I had acquired internationally. I came to BC to join the strong medical oncology program. As part of the BC Cancer team, I treat sarcoma and gynecologic cancers, with a special interest in gynecological sarcomas. I have also been able to pursue my other research interest in adolescent young adult (AYA) oncology as well.
Q: What research projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working in collaboration with others in BC to establish an Adolescence and Young Adult Oncology Program. I am part of outcomes research in Sarcoma as part of The Canadian Sarcoma Outcomes There is also the Canadian Sarcoma Research and Clinical Collaboration (CanSaRCC) and the BC Sarcoma Outcomes Unit. I am interested in reviewing outcomes of patients with rare sarcomas across the country. I am working with scientists to provide clinical details for cancer tumour sequencing that is being performed at VGH/Genomic Sciences Centre. I am also involved in precision oncology via the BC Cancer Personalized OncoGenomics (POG) Program. I am the local PI for the Canadian-wide Precision Oncology for Young People (PROFYLE) program for young adults with cancer ages 18 to 29.
Q: How did your expectations or experience with medicine change over the years?
It is quite an interesting time to be starting as a new staff member as I’ve been here at BC Cancer for just over a year. My fellowship took place during the pandemic, so I think we’ve seen a giant shift in care provision, virtually overnight. Some things have become simpler in terms of telemedicine and it being more convenient for patients to not have to travel as much. But at the same time, it’s also become complicated since there is now significant pressure on the system. However, I think this experience shows that we’re constantly evolving. It’s amazing to see how the whole healthcare system can quickly shift towards more patient-focused and safe care over the course of the pandemic; it gives me hope that we can continue to institute large-scale change to improve patient care.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your career?
The reason I went into oncology was largely due to the relationships you form with the patients and their families. The clinical teams I work with are all smart and inspiring people. I think all of us want to do right by our patients and do the best we can to provide them with the best care. It’s really neat to have patients, especially those with rare tumors, respond to their treatments and have a better quality of life. In terms of the sequencing work I am part of (POG), it provides patients with an unmatched opportunity to understand more about their individual cancer and potentially access novel treatments.
Giving patients an option for clinical trials is important. It is incredibly nice to be able to offer patients a new type of treatment because there’s lots of hope in that space; for them, but also for patients with the same cancer. What motivates me is the thought of being able to provide hope that in a few years, there will be new drugs or treatments that can become part of the standard of care.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
One piece of advice that really stuck with me was from an oncologist that was training me as a med student. She told me, “Work-life balance doesn’t exist.” I know it may seem like a funny statement, but it really resonated with me because she said, “What you have to know is that sometimes, work has to win, and sometimes life has to win. You just have to make sure that when one part of your life needs you more, be there for that.”
I found that that piece of advice was much more helpful than trying to constantly balance things every day. Instead, I found that it is more realistic to be able to identify what your priorities are at the moment and make sure that you listen to that.
Q: And if you’re not at work, what can people find you doing?
I like keeping active. I really like cycling and I have just started road biking. I’m not quite yet at the level of the OVCARE folks but I plan to get there. I also enjoy hiking and I am learning how to ski. I also love thrift shopping so you can potentially find me at the thrift shop! I also really like to bake. In the summer, I would say my favorite thing to bake is key lime pie, but it really depends on the season!
Q: If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I think apparition would be really cool– like being able to appear in places. Most of my family lives in Toronto and I have friends all over the country, so it would be cool to be able to pop up all over the different provinces in an instant (without it taking a multi-hour flight).