Purpose and passion

Meet the dynamic leader transforming public health

At the heart of Honorary Professor Tanya Buchanan’s remarkable career impact lies a singular vision: to advance public health in Australia and around the world. As Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Council Australia, she is a leading voice in addressing our most pressing health challenges.

“The reality is that tobacco is still a leading cause of preventable disease,” she explains.

“We’ve made considerable gains, but the job is far from done. The emergence of e-cigarettes threatens to undo decades of good work in Australia, with non-smoker children now three times as likely to become smokers as a result, and we need to tackle that urgently. We can’t take our foot off the pedal.”

Honorary Professor Buchanan has brought considerable passion and expertise to growing Cancer Council Australia’s leadership, culture, and impact. Since commencing as CEO in late 2020, she has successfully advocated for Federal Government funding for public health and cancer programs, delivered major national public health campaigns including the award-winning Get2It National Bowel Cancer Screening Campaign, and lobbied to secure Government and community support for evidence-based best practice public health policy. The scope is significant.

“When we can address factors that influence cancer and cancer prevention, we also have success around respiratory and heart health and other chronic disease. So that public health piece of cancer prevention and control is actually much broader; it’s about improving health outcomes more generally and prevention of chronic disease nationally.”

She also expertly steered Cancer Council Australia through significant change management processes and built a vibrant, supportive workplace culture that saw the organisation named Voice Workplace of the Year two years running – a testament to her warm and inclusive leadership style.

“I’m really passionate about being at Cancer Council Australia and the changes we can make, and about building teams that share that passion for why we’re here and what we’re working to achieve. I believe that a good leader communicates and collaborates on their vision, creates an environment based on trust, and encourages conversations that bring out different viewpoints on how to achieve the collective purpose.”

Honorary Professor Buchanan’s influence on public health and community in Australia and beyond is immense. Before joining Cancer Council Australia, she excelled in a range of roles including CEO of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, Executive Director of the International Association for Public Participation Australasia, and Divisional Manager for Community, Cultural and Economic Development at Wollongong City Council.

She spent almost five years in the United Kingdom as CEO of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Wales, guiding the nation through the introduction of smoke-free premises and driving the establishment of a Wales-specific tobacco control strategy in collaboration with the Welsh Government. Her seminal work here led to her being awarded membership of the Faculty of Public Health (UK) and the Leading Wales Award for voluntary sector leadership in 2011. It cemented her place as a respected leader in her field and paved the way for subsequent contributions through countless national public health panels and advisory roles.

Born in the UK but raised in Perth, Honorary Professor Buchanan became drawn to issues of social justice and health policy while completing a literature and drama degree at Murdoch University. She subsequently studied nursing at Curtin University of Technology and an MBA in health services at Edith Cowan University, going on to complete her PhD at UOW in 2021 – over nine years, part-time, whilst working full-time in executive roles and raising a family. Her thesis on implications for Australian tobacco control had a sizeable impact on national policy debate around future cancer control initiatives.

“The PhD was an opportunity to combine something I’m passionate about with the work I’d done at ASH and the Thoracic Society to influence policy change. I enjoyed the process of learning new skills; it was a whole new way of writing and reading and understanding, and learning to be confident in your research.”

She continues to publish and remains actively involved in research, and was appointed an Honorary Professor of the University of Wollongong in 2022 in recognition of her leadership in public health and outstanding contribution to academia and professional practice.

As she prepares to head to the World Cancer Leaders’ Summit in October in the United States – where she will also indulge another of her passions as a competitor in the 2023 Veteran World Fencing Championships – Honorary Professor Buchanan reflects on the task ahead. Among a vast library of priorities, from supporting the forthcoming Australian Cancer Plan to tackling the vaping epidemic, supporting Australians to navigate the complexities and costs of cancer treatment, and shifting behaviours contributing to our nation’s vulnerability to skin cancer, the bigger picture remains firmly in her sights.

“We still have a long way to go in addressing chronic disease,” she explains.

“The big-ticket item here is addressing the commercially led determinants of health, where we have ultra-processed food, environments that don’t encourage physical activity, and a tobacco industry looking to increase their market by creating a new generation of nicotine addicts. Those commercial players who put profit before health remain our biggest challenge.”

Honorary Professor Buchanan is a finalist in the Social Impact category of the UOW Alumni Awards. The winner will be announced at a special gala event at the University of Wollongong on 12 October.

“It is a huge honour to be nominated. The work that I do now is so closely tied to my UOW education and research on tobacco control; it’s with me all the time. It feels like coming full circle, and that’s quite special.”