Published on: 7 April 2022

Professor Sarah Danson is a Professor of Medical Oncology, Honorary Consultant Medical Oncologist, Sheffield Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) Lead and NIHR National Speciality Lead for early phase trials in cancer. 

As part of a series of ‘Day in the Life’ stories featuring medical professionals across our region, Sarah explains the key tasks she performs in her role.

What does a typical day look like to you?

I don’t really have a typical day and that is one of the things I like about my job. If I am in a clinic, there will be different patients at different points in their treatment pathways with different things that they want to discuss. My university work is even more varied, moving from one grant application to the next, talking about research ideas, delivering on trials, and being responsible for a large number of people.

What led you to work in this role?

As a medical student, oncology was not on my list of possible careers. Nobody in my family had been diagnosed with cancer and the medical degree curriculum did not contain a great deal of oncology teaching so cancer was not something that I knew a great deal about. However, in the second year of medical school, a good friend died of cancer and oncology moved to a possible option on my mental list.Sarah Danson.jpg

I carried out general medical training and there were three months of oncology in my two-year post. I loved every second of the oncology attachment as you help people and families at a crucial time and really get to know them, and there was lots of interesting research happening. I was still in two minds about my eventual career as I also enjoyed Endocrinology. A post came up with oncology and endocrinology in it which seemed tailor-made. I was scheduled to do oncology first and never made it as far as the endocrinology half before applying for a registrar training post in oncology and moving into that.

I took time out of my registrar training to do a PhD (something that I highly recommend to all oncology trainees, regardless of whether they want to be academics). The PhD was based around a clinical trial with me looking after the trial day-to-day and also carrying out related research in a laboratory. This felt like a good mix to me and so, on completion of my PhD, I applied for a Senior Clinical Lecturer post at the University of Sheffield which was 50% clinical and 50% research. Over time I was promoted to Reader and then Professor in 2016.

In what way do you work alongside other staff or teams within SYB?

I have worked with Dr Trish Fisher, Clinical Director at SYB ICS Cancer Alliance for 16 years as we both treat lung cancer. Trish was previously my Clinical Director in Oncology and now keeps us updated about SYB​​​​​​​.

I am currently Research Lead for the SYB ICS Skin Cancer Clinical Delivery Group and we have been developing three main areas – the clinical trial portfolio, patient sample collection and patient experience.

How has your role changed within the last couple of years?

Unfortunately, pressures that we faced pre-pandemic have been further exacerbated. More people are taking early retirement or leaving posts, meaning we have a growing shortage of oncologists that is not just a local issue but is being reported nationally meaning recruitment to fill these posts is challenging. The remaining staff are working incredibly hard to maintain quality services but we may need to do things differently for a while to support staff wellbeing as well as patient care​​​​​​​.

What excites you most about your role?

I really enjoy working with students. I mentor student doctors, supervise clinical trainees, and PhD students, and provide support to senior fellows. The most interesting conversations come from discussions with students and it is wonderful when they are successful (which may be getting a job, obtaining a grant, publishing or something else more relevant to them)​​​​​​​.

Are there any personal or team achievements or highlights that you're most proud of?

I took over as Sheffield Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) Lead just before the last renewal bid was submitted in 2016. Successfully keeping ECMC status in 2017 and using this to leverage the creation of a new Early Phase Group has been my career highlight. Clinical trials work needs support as we come out of the pandemic and I know SYB can help with that​​​​​​​.

In what way do patients or the public influence the work you do?

They influence everything! We work with patients and the public to find out what research they need, develop clinical research and then they remain involved throughout trials, on trial committees and helping disseminate and action findings​​​​​​​.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve in the future within your new role?

My main aim is to further expand the Sheffield Early Phase Group delivering clinical trials to patients with cancer. I also hold an NIHR National Speciality Lead post and my remit is to deliver equity of access to early-phase research for patients with cancer in the UK. The pandemic has worsened these inequities and so there is a lot of work to do​​​​​​​.

I believe we need to expand the workforce, make research an integral part of NHS culture and work closely with patients to do the right research for them.