The University of Newcastle, Australia

Improving cancer survival rates

Dr Kristen McCarter is increasing survival rates in cancer patients by finding ways to reduce preventable risk—such as helping people quit smoking.

Image of Kristen McCarter and team

Kristen is committed to improving survival rates for patients with cancer by investigating the coexisting factors that contribute to long-term treatment outcomes, such as nutrition, psychological distress, smoking and alcohol use.

One of Kristen’s primary research goals is to help people quit smoking—contributing to better health and treatment outcomes—especially among populations with smoking disparities such as those with severe mental illness. Life expectancy in this group is nearly 20 years younger than the general population, and is typically due to preventable risk factors such as smoking.

Inspired to improve lives

Kristen’s research was inspired by the work of Professor Amanda Baker, her PhD supervisor, ongoing mentor and highly respected authority on the treatment of co-existing mental health and substance use.

Kristen was also motivated by personal grief; the loss of her father during her PhD studies compounded her commitment to help people quit smoking and work towards improved treatments for all patients with cancer.

“During my PhD, my father, a long-time smoker, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and passed away,” Kristen shares.

“It is my passion to design interventions to help people quit smoking.

“Patients who continue smoking after their diagnosis may feel the damage is already done or it’s too late to quit. But even after diagnosis, quitting smoking improves survival.

“It's my goal to help as many people quit smoking as possible.”

Beyond cancer

Kristen recently led a drug and alcohol capacity building program aimed at equipping primary care nurses and general practitioners through webinars. One of multiple research projects currently underway, Kristen has since commenced work on ‘QuitLink’, a randomised control trial testing the effectiveness of Quitline counselling and nicotine replacement therapy to help people with severe mental illness give up smoking.

While Kristen’s PhD work was focussed on patients with head and neck cancer, her postdoctoral work also contributes to improved treatments for cancer patients more broadly. Pilot trial TREAT aims to further the NHMRC-funded Eating as Treatment (EAT) study outcomes to test a new, sustainable model of an effective health behaviour intervention for all cancer patients. The model looks at how dietitians, speech pathologists and social workers can improve nutrition and therefore cancer survival rates.

A thriving research career

Kristen’s early research career is impressive, with 16 peer-reviewed papers to date—nine of which she is lead or senior author. Kristen has attracted more than $350,000 in research funding since 2014, including the prestigious Hunter Cancer Research Alliance 2019 Career Advancement Fellowship in Cancer Research.

Kristen is committed to progress and learning from accomplished researchers and peers. In 2018, Kristen participated in the University’s ThinkWell Early and Mid-Career Women’s Development Program, facilitated through the Faculty of Health and Medicine's Gender Equity Committee, as well as the ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellowship Mentoring Scheme at the University of Melbourne.

With more than twenty national and international conference presentations to her name, Kristen’s work is influencing best practice globally. In early 2019, Kristen headed to the United States to collaborate with researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania and learn about their NIH-funded research (National Institutes of Health) into smoking cessation for cancer patients.