bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate and CEO of Cancer Council Queensland Jeff Dunn is determined to make a difference.

Jeff Dunn swirls into the room like a well-dressed tornado and apologises for the navy blue suit, pin-striped shirt and dark tie. “I’ve got meetings today,” says the CEO of Cancer Council Queensland, “hence the tie. I don’t always dress like this.” Ten years as CEO and 24 years with the council, Professor Dunn radiates energy and purpose. “Our aim is very clear – we are aiming for a cancer-free future and, in the meantime, we’re raising funds to direct at research, prevention, detection and supportive care programs.

“We deliver innovative solutions to intractable problems and sometimes it keeps you awake,” says the professor, speaking with an energy that belies his 4am start to each working day. It’s a habit he developed as a teenager. “My father died very young and my mother worked a couple of jobs so that she could send me to boarding school. In the school holidays I’d work in hospital kitchens to help out. I’d start work at 4.45am and it’s a habit that’s stayed with me.”

Since leaving university he’s never sought the nine to five, but improving the welfare of others was an early calling. For the first 10 years of his working life he worked with people with intellectual disabilities before becoming involved with the Cancer Council. In the 10 years he’s been CEO, he has been prominent in the anti-tobacco campaign that led to a smoking ban in the Queen Street Mall and the introduction of laws banning retail displays of cigarettes; under his leadership fundraising revenue has risen from $14million to more than $25million.

He also established Australia’s first Cancer Counselling Service and the Centre for Research in Cancer Control and has overseen the investment more than $59million in cancer research. The subsidy of travel costs for country patients needing treatment in Brisbane has also doubled under his watch…after 10 years of persistent campaigning. Providing accommodation for country patients has also been high on his agenda.

“When I first came here we had one accommodation facility. We’ve now got six and we will be opening a new one at South Brisbane in April. We’re doing 120,000 bed nights a year.  “Coming to Brisbane for treatment causes a great deal of stress not only in a financial sense but also with relationships and families. People feel a loss of future and see dreams disappearing and our philosophy is to be equitable and accessible to all Queenslanders, not just those in Brisbane.”

Army of volunteers
Professor Dunn oversees an army of 3000 volunteers throughout the state and 250 staff. Cancer Council Queensland’s head of advocacy Anne Savage has worked with him for five years. “I remember once we met a lady who sadly passed away not long after. Her experience was heart-rending in that she had been diagnosed late and then had a poor prospect of survival. Jeff held her hand as she cried and told her story. I’ve worked for a few CEOs in my time, all good people, but I’ve never seen any of them do anything like that,” she says.

“All the volunteers know him as Jeff. We’ve doubled in size but he still deals directly with people. I’ve been trying to get him on Facebook because he could talk with so many people that way and he’s slowly getting there.”

Cale Hutchins, 19, who works in airline passenger services at Mackay airport, became a volunteer after losing his mum to cancer three and a half years ago. “Since then I have been on a mission with Cancer Council Queensland. The work we do is crucial to cancer control and Jeff is one of those blokes who is super-involved. He’s a leader and does it in the most grassroots way possible.

“I’ve introduced him at functions many times and he gets a hero’s welcome. He is enormously respected. Jeff never walks past anyone. He always stops and has a chat,” says Hutchins. Amanda Power, 23, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and she, too, has become a volunteer. “Jeff is the sort of guy who sees what needs to be done and he gets in there and does it. He’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty,” she says.

Amidst it all the father-of-three says his daughters do their best to ensure he maintains a work-life balance and he’s helped out at school when possible, been an enthusiastic supporter at touch footy and netball and he likes to teach them how to cook. He’s also teaching his two youngest how to drive. “Their lives are important to me and I am eager to help out where I can.”

It appears to be the motto Dunn lives by in both his personal and professional life. While there are more cases of cancer being diagnosed because a larger population is living longer, Professor Dunn says that survival rates have increased significantly. “What we do know is that around 30 per cent of all people who are diagnosed and treated for cancer exhibit clinically significant levels of emotional distress.

“There are about 180,000 people living in Queensland who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer which means there are 60,000 people out there needing support. We have a cancer helpline, a toll-free number (13 11 20) and we have systems in place to address their needs or refer them to people.”
Professor Dunn says that if people took notice of what is known about risk factors such as smoking, sun protection, physical activity and nutrition, cancer mortality would be cut by at least 30 per cent.

“About 7500 Queenslanders die every year from cancer. That’s 2500 people we could save. But 16 per cent of Queenslanders still smoke and if you go to the beach, there are people still sunbaking, and if every woman in Queensland had a pap smear every year, we would eliminate cervical cancer as a cause of death.”

In spite of a federally funded campaign for bowel cancer screening, few people take advantage of it. “Bowel cancer – no one wants to talk about it but more people die from it than either breast or prostate cancer,” he says. His role requires him to travel frequently, a part of the job he enjoys.

“I’ve been to so many tiny communities and there is a sense of commitment to do good things that never ceases to amaze me. They look to make their community a better place. I talk to them about how cancer is a community thing. It’s not just about doctors or nurses. It’s about all of us. The conversations I have with people around their dining tables or at sports clubs are just as important as the ones I have with politicians,” he says.

So it should come as no surprise to hear what target he has set himself this year. “We have 40 branches throughout Queensland – Roma, Barcaldine, Mareeba, Port Douglas, places like that – all staffed by volunteers. I’ve been to them all but never in one calendar year, but I will in 2013,” he says smiling, “so I guess I’d better get my skates on.”