2023 | Volume 24 | Issue 6


For surgical oncologist Dr David Coker, receiving the 2022 Hugh Johnston Travel Grant has enriched him with practical knowledge and experience to bring back to Australia. This grant supports RACS Fellows and SET Trainees to enhance their specialist knowledge and skills through travel.

Dr Coker received the grant at a pivotal moment during the end of his Fellowship. He had recently been involved in establishing a dedicated pelvic, abdominal and retroperitoneal sarcoma unit at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, while completing a Fellowship in melanoma and advanced skin malignancies in Sydney.

Following his mentor's recommendation to diversify and further his expertise to advance his career and contribute to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, he applied for the grant. It became an invaluable boon—empowering him to enhance his capabilities in a rare, and highly specialised cancer.

“I went to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, which, is the largest sarcoma unit in the United Kingdom, and one of the largest units globally for retroperitoneal and abdominal sarcoma,” Dr Coker says.

This experience not only enriched his exploration of various sarcoma types, but also gave him the opportunity to work alongside experts in the field.

“The aim was to work in an environment where not only did the surgeries involve high levels of technical challenge and complexity, but also to be part of a high-quality, multidisciplinary team. I learned a great deal in the operating room, and also at the clinic and multidisciplinary team meetings, regarding complex management issues.”

Dr Coker also ventured to Milan, the home of the world's largest retroperitoneal sarcoma unit, expanding his knowledge and network even further.

Born and raised in Townsville, Dr Coker completed his early education in North Queensland. Despite hailing from a family of lawyers, he chose to blaze his own trail. After earning his undergraduate degree in both science and law in Canberra, it became clear that a legal career was not his calling. Displaying remarkable determination, he finished his law degree while embarking on a new path towards medicine.

His journey led him to Sydney University, where he pursued a medical degree, while his wife began her career in law. As a medical student, Dr Coker found himself immersed in the world of healthcare at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He continued to grow and develop professionally at this hospital throughout his junior doctor years and registrar training.

It was within the realm of surgical oncology that Dr Coker found his true calling. He was drawn to the complexity of cancer patient scenarios and the opportunity to collaborate with multiple specialties, including medical oncology and radiation oncology, in the multimodal treatment of challenging cases.

Dr Coker places a high value on global experience and international collaboration. His exposure in the UK and globally, along with the friendships he cultivated has enhanced his practice and continues to influence his career. Having these connections with experts worldwide has proven invaluable in the realm of sarcoma treatment—a rare and highly specialised field.

“My time abroad also provided me with a wealth of experience. While it's possible to gain this experience in Australia, it would take somewhat longer. Being in a high-volume environment at a major sarcoma referral centre in London accelerated my learning and experience,” Dr Coker says.

His Fellowship demonstrated to him the outstanding quality of Australian surgical training, while underscoring the importance of having a global network of colleagues and mentors concerned with a rare a challenging cancer such as sarcoma.

Dr Coker expresses gratitude for the RACS scholarship that helped support his UK Fellowship. "It's incredibly generous of the Johnston family and RACS to provide this opportunity, and I am deeply thankful," he says.

As a consultant at various hospitals in Sydney, including Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Northern Beaches Hospital, Dr Coker now dedicates himself to providing best practice care for surgical oncology patients.

Dr Coker is settling back into life in Sydney, where he enjoys spending his time with his wife and two daughters.