The heart-warming story of a 33-year-old oncologist
Dr Nokwanda Zuma is only the second black African oncologist in KwaZulu-Natal
At the age of just 33, Dr Nokwanda Zuma is only the second black African oncologist in KwaZulu-Natal.
She graduated last month after completing her training at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town and is now based at Durban’s Addington Hospital, where she is in charge of radiotherapy.
In June, she treated the first patient, following the restoration of oncology services at the hospital.This included repairing one oncology machine and installing a second.
The new machine will be ready for use this month, giving the hospital the capacity to eventually treat between 40 and 50 patients per day.
In this candid interview, Zuma reflected on her long and arduous journey towards becoming a medical specialist; the huge personal sacrifices she had to make along the way; and her hopes and dreams for people who need cancer treatment in KwaZulu-Natal.
Born and bred in Pietermaritzburg, she was a very active child.
“Hence my father named me
Philile (the one who is full of life) when I was born.”
The second daughter of Mbali and Christopher Zuma, a deputy principal and retired manager at the Department of Education respectively, Zuma comes from a family of achievers.“My older sister is a chartered accountant and my younger sister is a financial manager.”
Speaking of her childhood, she said:“I grew up in Imbali township where my fondest memories are of us playing in the streets from dawn until dusk. My parents are kindhearted, ambitious and hardworking people and those qualities I also inherited. However, they were very strict.They encouraged us to study and create the life we wanted to live in order to be happy.”
Zuma matriculated at Pietermaritzburg Girls' High School where she was a prefect.“I was a nerd in high school, studying all the time. I knew then that I wanted to become a doctor and that the only way I was going to get there was through discipline and studying.”
Zuma said her parents have been very supportive of her career.“I think I surprised them a bit when I said I wanted to specialise in radiation oncology. However, they have always been supportive, even making financial sacrifices so I could study medicine.
“They didn’t completely understand at the time what radiation oncology entailed. But the more they saw friends and family being diagnosed and dying from cancer, the more they understood the need for, and importance of, doctors who could treat cancer. So, my parents are my greatest influencers.”
She trained for nine years, doing her undergraduate studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s
medical school. She then spent four years specialising and did her internship at Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital. Her community service was completed in Krugersdorp, with the West Rand health department.
“The hardest part of my training was when my aunt passed away two weeks before my final exams and I couldn’t go to the funeral in Durban from Cape Town. I was literally crying while studying.
“When you are a doctor, you are always studying or on call and when you specialise, the workload makes it hard to have a social life,” she said.“I was that person who was always apologising for not making it to a family or social event.”
This rigorous schedule is why she admires Judy Dlamini, who is a qualified doctor, businesswoman, mother and wife.“She does it all with finesse. She also has overcome class, race and gender discrimination, which is something that black women face every day.”
Zuma said her own star quality is perseverance.“I have a community to serve and the only way to do that is by being the best at what I do.
“My friends and family have also been very supportive especially when the studying got really tough.” Why oncology?
Zuma decided in 2012 that she wanted to be an oncologist. A year later, her step-grandmother, Peggy Zuma, an ex-Matron at Edendale Hospital, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.
“Oncology has always been my destiny and my step-grandmother just took away any doubt of anything else. I was working at Grey's Hospital oncology department at the time. She chose to be treated there, in a public hospital as opposed to going to a private hospital, because her granddaughter was there.”
Zuma’s maternal grandmother, Eustacia Gumbi, was an orthopaedic nurse at King Edward III and Prince Mshiyeni Memorial hospitals.
“They both had a strong influence on me.
“My father’s biological mother was also diagnosed with cancer and treated at Addington Hospital 20 years ago and she’s still alive.That’s why it’s important for me to see Addington’s oncology department functioning well.”
Oncology is unique in that there’s the medical part and then the radiotherapy part, explained Zuma. “As an oncologist, I have to tell patients that they have cancer and the immediate thought for them is that,‘I’m going to die’. It takes a doctor with empathy and soft skills to be able to reassure them that, ‘I will be there with you throughout this journey and I will do my best, no matter what the outcome’.”
She said she truly enjoys treating patients and interacting with their families, as well as the technical part of radiotherapy.“We use advanced machines and software to give the best treatment to patients.
“The biggest challenge in oncology is accepting that the disease is sometimes stronger than a patient’s will to fight… stronger than any chemotherapy or radiotherapy you prescribe. And they will eventually pass away. My role as their doctor is to make them as comfortable as possible.”