The heart-warm­ing story of a 33-year-old on­col­o­gist

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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.”

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