Dr Aoife McGarvey, head and neck cancer research pioneer

Every year approximately 4,000 Australians are diagnosed with head and neck cancer. As an increasing number of people battle this formidable disease, Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist at Calvary Mater Newcastle, is leading the way in pioneering head and neck cancer research.

A physiotherapist with over 18 years experience, Aoife [pronounced Eee-fa], has never been one to shy away from a challenge. The unknown doesn’t stop Aoife – it simply propels her.

When Aoife was 24 she packed her bag and ventured to Europe to experience life as a locum physiotherapist for four years.

Over this time Aoife worked in a diverse range of jobs ranging from English public hospitals to British Army Military positions.

“My first position was at a British Army base – I was the only female, civilian, physiotherapist, non-English person, living in the Officer’s Mess. It was definitely a ‘sink or swim’ moment!” Aoife recalls. “I remember turning up for my first dinner in the Officer’s Mess in a pair of shorts and I was turned away as I wasn’t wearing a skirt. Thankfully the chef took pity on me and gave me some dinner and the next day I made sure I purchased myself a skirt.”

Aoife looked after all the soldier’s physiotherapy needs while they were carrying out their infantry training, “I had thrown myself into a challenge without really realising it but that experience without doubt improved my clinical confidence and allowed me to problem solve independently.”

During her time overseas there were moments Aoife witnessed the ‘brutality of life’ so disconnected to a world she knew. Working at a hospital in London Aoife found herself treating refugees who had been the victims of torture.

“It was harrowing to hear their stories and deal with the repercussions of this awful violation of life but I was glad to be of some help.”

It’s this courageous go-getting attitude, driven by her unadulterated passion to make a difference that has catapulted Aoife into the world of clinical research.

“My clinical research interest and passion stems from seeing gaps in clinical needs for patients undergoing treatment – physiotherapy can improve physical outcomes for patients.”

Having worked at Calvary Mater Newcastle since 2006, Aoife can be seen busily working in the Emergency Department looking after patients who have fractures, soft tissue injuries and falls. However, for one day a week Aoife is a clinical researcher and through her research she is helping to shape clinical practice – Aoife is making waves in the world of head and neck cancer research.

Aoife’s passion for research was ignited when she was the recipient of the hospital’s 2009 James Lawrie Research Grant, a grant dedicated to support oncology research into head and neck cancer.

Aoife carried out a multi-centre randomised study researching the effect of early physiotherapy rehabilitation for head and neck cancer patients after surgery. This research was prompted as Aoife questioned why the Physiotherapy Department was seeing head and neck cancer patients a few months after their surgery when reduced physical function, pain and stiffness had already set in. “We treat a lot of head and neck cancer patients, the majority of whom are males, and I wanted to investigate why the referral pattern for this group of patients was different to our other cancer groups.”

“Many of our head and neck cancer patients carry out physical jobs and this deconditioning was impacting on their work and lives. I wanted to see if I could improve their quality of life.”

Aoife admits that as a clinician she found foraying into the world of research daunting but driven by her desire and her sights firmly set on the rewards for the patients, she pursued this piece of research with gusto. Such was the breadth and scope of the topic, Aoife committed to completing a parttime PhD.“The PhD gave me a unique opportunity to work as a clinician-researcher and improve the evidence-based physiotherapy management for head and neck cancer patients.” Aoife’s thesis investigated nerve injury related to neck dissection surgery, as well as exploring the physical and psychological effects of facial lymphoedema in head and neck cancer patients.

One of Aoife’s studies was the first prospective, randomised controlled trial in patients experiencing shoulder pain from nerve injury after neck dissection surgery. The study found that the intervention group, who received a 12 week program of progressive, specific strengthening exercises, had significantly increased shoulder movement at three months follow-up compared to the control group.

Aoife’s PhD thesis was awarded the Research Higher Degree Excellence Award for the Faculty of Health and Medicine for 2015 from the University of Newcastle – a remarkable achievement! The award recognises excellence in research and celebrates outstanding achievement in research by Research Higher Degree candidates.

“I was blown away and humbled, particularly as I was a clinician-researcher, working part-time on a PhD, to receive such a prestigious award. I see this as the first step towards a change of patient care to improve access to physiotherapy and promote physiotherapy for patients with head and neck cancer.”

To date Aoife’s studies have initiated six publications and resulted in several invitations to be a speaker at the Australian and New Zealand Head and Neck Cancer conferences since 2010, and most recently she was the keynote speaker to members of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

However, Aoife’s passion for research goes beyond head and neck cancer, as she gets ready to investigate how conditioning and physical activity can improve quality of life for patients from all cancer groups.

Aoife’s ‘bag’ is now firmly stowed in Newcastle with her four-year-old son Eamon by her side. Despite nowadays being grounded in Newcastle, Aoife’s eyes will always be firmly placed on the horizon. Her love of the ocean and her craving for the thrill and excitement of catching a wave means she is a regular at Newcastle’s beaches. In tow are her friends from local group ‘Surfing Mums’, who join together to enjoy their favourite pastime and share plenty of laughs.

Whether Aoife is looking out at the edge of the continent or discovering the cutting edge of research, her horizons look bright.

“I see this as the first step towards a change of patient care to improve access to physiotherapy and promote physiotherapy for patients with head and neck cancer.” – Aoife McGarvey

Story By Helen Ellis, Calvary Mater Newcastle and reprinted with the kind permission of Hunter and Coastal Lifestyle Magazine