Breast Cancer Awareness: A Doctors Advice

Nonyameko Ndlovu

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and so we saw it fit to feature young female Doctor, Dr. Nonkyameko Ndlovu. Learn more about her previous studies, profession, her experiences as a young black female doctor and what makes her who she is. Nonyameko also shares some facts about breast cancer, debunks some myths and provides us with some useful advice. 

Background and Education

Tell us a little bit about yourself, who is Nonyameko?

I am a 26 year old female ,born in Zambia and bread in South africa. I have always been ambitious for my quest for success, not always knowing how to go about it but always having a burning desire. I am an introvert. I like to help people and my desire is to fight against poverty, in the environment I work in, it’s the norm.

Tell us about your previous education, where did you study and why did you pursue your degree (what is the benefit)?

I studied at UKZN Nelson Mandela School of Medicine. I wanted to be a doctor since a very young age, we all kinder want to be, childhood dream career. I didn’t think it would’ve been possible without the help of my parents, varsity is very expensive. I always watched these medical dramas, seeing the action of someone coming in almost dead and the miracle of the surgeon putting the individual back together, I wanted to be that person, reality is not always that dramatic and glamorous but we do make a difference.

What is your current profession and where are you employed?

I am a second year intern, I will be a com-service doctor in 2018. I work in the small town of Stanger in KwaDukuza Municipality , it’s a very nice place to gain independence and the working environment is good, never met such great hardworking doctors in one place!

What does your daily job entail and what are your responsibilities?

Well as an intern you always work under supervision but there’s always room for you to have some independence and to master the craft of being a well-rounded doctor. We rotate around almost all the disciplines, there’s ward rounds, clinic patients to see, theatre assistant if you’re doing a surgical discipline, we are basically the elves in Santa’s workshop.

How difficult/easy was the transition from being a student to a full time professional?

It was very difficult; it went from just being a bystander to having to fully immerse yourself in the work force and with the shortage of doctors you have to pull your weight.

Do you believe that your academic experience provided you with all of the necessary skills to fully integrate into the working place (E.g. team facilitation, management etc.)?

 There’s a lot that you have to absorb as a student, working means having to apply it and sometimes you need the working experience to exercise that part. It’s not only about your knowledge it’s also your ability to work as a team and to have respect for everyone which you learn as you work.

What are the main challenges you face in your job (medical or non-medical) and what are the most rewarding aspects of your job?

The challenges are lack of equipment, infrastructure that is not conducive to an effective working environment e.g no beds available to examine a patient properly, large patient load and sometimes work load, patients lack of desire to be fully knowledgeable about their illness and therefore to take responsibility of their life e.g constant defaulting of medication. I am so grateful when people appreciate the time and effort you put in trying to help them even with a failing health system and making them better than they were before seeing you.

Would you say that there is diversity within your profession? Do you believe that black female doctors are well represented in leadership positions?

I think there is diversity, I think that we have started the race a bit later so black women are still realizing their potential and they are working towards leadership positions, we are still currently under represented.

Do you have any plans of studying further/to specialise and is this important for your career?

Currently I’m conflicted, I’m almost done but I’m still weighing out the benefits of the different specialties. I want to have a family one day, probably should be sooner as my age is catching up with me so I want to find something that will give me the leeway to do so. Specializing allows growth in your career it’s a difficult journey but the outcome if all goes well is great, definitely something to consider.

Breast Cancer Awareness

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What are the most common types of cancer affecting women in South Africa?

Breast cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, lung cancer and colorectal cancer.

From a medical perspective, what exactly is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a growth of abnormal cells within the breast tissue. Certain people are more predisposed as there is a genetic component involved but there are other risk factors that make certain people more inclined to it like obesity or women that are menopausal.

What are the early signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

 Sometimes there are no warning signs or they may be subtle, usually there’s a lump in the breast, skin changes on the breast, weight loss, bloody nipple discharge, breast pain, swollen lymph nodes in the neck or underarm or a change in the size of the breast or nipple.

Angelina Jolie made headlines several years ago when she opted for a double mastectomy because tests showed that she was genetically inclined to develop breast cancer. Can you elaborate on cancer risk assessment techniques? Would you recommend this to women with a family history of cancer?

A test for the BRCA1/2 gene can be done especially in those with a family history of breast cancer. Mammogram screening from 40 years of age in low risk females. I think it’s a personal choice, they always say prevention is better than cure so if you can eliminate the risk by getting rid of the source you should.

Sometimes a lump may not necessarily be breast cancer, what other illnesses can this be mistaken for?

It could be a breast abscess, fibroadenoma, some women get lumps during menstruation which disappear on their own called a breast cyst, traumatic fat necrosis and intraductal papillomas.

How significant is early detection? Women can reduce their risks by undergoing examinations, can you elaborate on the types of examination processes available?

The earlier it’s detected the quicker treatment can be started and the spread can be reduced. The easiest and least expensive way to detect abnormality is regular self-breast examinations or clinical examinations, women more than 40 should have regular mammograms and if a lump is detected it should be tested either by fine needle aspiration, tru-cut or an excisional biopsy.

Can you list 3 common myths/misconceptions about breast cancer?

Men can also get breast cancer, it’s not as common as women but it does exist. Traditional medicine doesn’t cure you from cancer, seek medical attention if you’re worried and cancer is not only a Caucasian illness, black women should always be alert to any symptoms.

Are there any lifestyle habits one can adopt to reduce their risk to contracting cancer? Anything specifically for breast cancer?

Exercise and having a healthy diet, no smoking or alcohol use is recommended, this however doesn’t eliminate the risk completely if you especially have a strong family history.

Finding Balance

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What other interests do you have?

I’ve taken up reading again, I’m still finding out what I like, having been so engulfed in school has left me “interest-less”.

We often hear about doctors’ stressful work schedules, how do you balance you professional and personal/social life?

I keep a small circle so it’s easy to find time to be social, there are weekend off days and post calls that allow you to have a life outside work.

What are your goals for the next 5 years?

Marriage and possibly 2 kids. Owning a business, trying to get into property and hopefully in a reg program.

Fun Facts about Meko!

Must have beauty item: Face mask, I’m still like a hormonal teenager, pimples pop out everywhere. I use Clinique face mask, keeps my face feeling open.

Sweet or savoury: SWEET, I’m a sucker for sugar, a bit addicted even. I have a cupboard, LOL!

If you had a super-power what would it be and why? Reading people’s minds so that I can get a better history from patients, LOL.

Best way to de-stress: Going on a holiday.

As a doctor do you like your own handwriting? Yes, I’m very considerate, even a grade 3 learner can see the letters!

Trading Places: From Student to Lecturer

Nkhensani Mogale

Meet Nkhensani Mogale, a young phenomenal scientist and lecturer in the Clinical Anatomy division of the University of Pretoria. Nkhensani represents female scientists who have chosen to pursue the academia and research career paths. She is a fine example of the growth potential within her profession and how rewarding it can be. Recently elected as the Honorary Secretary of the Anatomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA), it is clear that Nkhensani juggles many significant roles in her life. She epitomises the modern well-rounded female black women in science we are inspired by.

We discuss the challenges of transitioning from the role of the “student” to “lecturer” and she shares her perspective on diversity within South African universities. In this article we honour Nkhensani’s late father Mashangu Harry Maluleka, a former pastor and lecturer, for playing a pivotal role in inspiring her choice to pursue academia, being a supportive parent and leading by example.

Education and Research

Tell us a bit about your background, who is Nkhensani Mogale?

Born Nkhensani Maluleka, I am a middle child of three (older sister and younger brother). My parents are both teachers in their own right, my mom is a now retired mathematics and life sciences teacher and my late father was a pastor and a ‘retired’ lecturer (he wouldn’t have agreed with me on the retirement bit, but at the time of his passing he no longer lectured in a formal setting of an academic institution). That may account for my initial interest in academia, possibly. 

I am a mother of a five year old little girl (Onaka-Ayana Mogale), and have been married to my husband (Mpho Mogale) for six years now.

I believe in hard work and ascribe to Oprah Winfrey’s philosophy, ‘Nothing worth having happens without hard work’. That said I also feel after an achievement it’s important to stop, smell the roses, take in the scenery and move on to conquer the next mountain.

What is your previous education, where did you study and why you choose that specific path?

My post matriculation journey started at the University of the Free State where I completed a BMedSc (Human Biology). The initial plan was to eventually apply for MBChB as at the time I thought I wanted to be a doctor, all which changed in my second year when Anatomy became a major subject. You could say I fell in love with the intricacies of the human body, it has been a passion since. I went on to study a BSc Macro-anatomy (Honours) at the University of Pretoria, which was followed by an MSc Anatomy (UP). I am currently enrolled for a PhD Anatomy at the University of Pretoria.

In 2008 I was employed by the University of Johannesburg (Department of Anatomy and Physiology), that’s where I discovered my love for academia which then became my chosen path.

What is your current profession and what inspired you to pursue a career in research/academics?

When I graduated from the University of the Free State I was fortunate to get a part-time position at the University of Johannesburg while I was furthering my studies. I stayed in this position for six years, which helped nurture my confidence as an aspiring academic, I was entrusted with a variety of roles during my stay at UJ. I was then employed into a full-time Junior Lecturer position by the then University of Limpopo (Medunsa Campus), this campus was later renamed the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University. I was later promoted to Lecturer, I stayed in this position for three years and three months.

I have recently joined the Clinical Anatomy division of the University of Pretoria as a lecturer where I am hoping to further sharpen my skills and contribute to this field of science.

I think academia chose me or maybe Anatomy chose me, I can’t explain it but I love what I do and the rewards that you get from the interactions with students are unexplainable. The other benefit of my job is that I get to do research as well, which is further enriching my role in the scientific community.

What are the most rewarding aspects about your job?

As people who relay information and help with guiding knowledge for further understanding by students, one of the greatest rewards is when students grasp the knowledge of what is being conveyed and when they move to the next year. The look on their faces when they finally make the connection, that is satisfying.

Publications also give a certain level of satisfaction, to see your hard work documented and available for the broader community. As an Anatomist, the research end goal is to make a difference with your research to the broader medical field.

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How easy or difficult was your transition from being a student to a lecturer?

It’s a different world and a bit of a mental shift from being the receiver of knowledge to now being the conveyor of knowledge. Life was definitely easier when I was a student. Academia also comes with its pressures, student expectations and the like. There is also a need to publish and meet certain targets yearly. I do love it though, and I guess that is what keeps me going.

Can you give us a short summary about one of your research endeavours? What are the benefits of your research for society and the scientific community?

My interest is in Clinical Anatomy, I want any research project that I embark on to have some clinical significance. The clinical research that I completed was looking at the anterior and anterolateral approach to hip arthroplasty, specifically looking at which method may be better for patient outcome and the anatomy related to the hip. From that research conducted, one article has been published so far, and we are working on a second article. My PhD research is looking at the clinical, anatomical repair integrity of the rotator cuff following open surgery, with the focus being on a South African sample. What my hope is for any research that we embark on, is that it will assist clinicians, who are ultimately the ones to apply the research.

Do you think that there is diversity within the academic staff in South African universities? Are black female scientists being well represented? If not, how can we change that?

I think its discipline specific, some sectors are more transformed than others. We are slowly getting the representation we need, it is up to those of us who are in the field to change things and make it better and more accessible for aspiring scientists. Mentorship also plays a crucial role, the ‘each one teach one’ slogan.

Studying Abroad

You have had some experience teaching in Latvia, can you elaborate on your time abroad?

I visited the University of Latvia, and with time made my way to the medical school. That was an enriching experience for me, meeting people who are just as passionate about teaching and thoroughly enjoy working with students. In my short stay I was asked to give one lecture to the first year medical students, as anatomy is a ‘universal language’ it was an enjoyable experience. My time at the university also taught me to appreciate our education system, we really are on par with the world.

Keeping It Real

“There are moments when I feel I am in my element, but I’m not completely there, it’s a work in progress and I am mostly succeeding” – Nkhensani Mogale

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How do you successfully balance your professional and personal life?

The trick is having a good support system, and learning to take time off to recharge. You need to learn to accept help as well, to avoid burn out.  Consciously make time for the people in your life, especially your family. Work hard when you need to work but take time out to enjoy life as well.

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What is your message to young women aspiring to become lecturers?

It needs to be a passion, anything done with passion and love does not feel like work and becomes more rewarding. It is important to be true to yourself, and know yourself so you do not sell your soul in the attempt to forge ahead.

A good work ethic is important, because there will be times when you just want to throw in the towel. Work hard on making things a bit easier for those who come after you, they shouldn’t go through the same struggles. My father, Mashangu Harry Maluleka, lived by this slogan ‘If those who come after us complain about the same things we did, then we shall not have lived’.

Nkhensani’s Fun Facts!!!

What do you do for fun? I Read (A lot! That’s my utopia).

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One of Nkhensani’s Faves!!

Favourite South African artist? Nomfundo Xaluva, The Muffinz, Thee Legacy, Thandiswa Mazwai, Lira, Dr Tumi, Zonke Dikana.

Who inspires you? Several people, Chimamandza Achidie Ngozi, true to herself and unapologetic about her feministic ideas and ideals.

My Daughter – Onaka-Ayana Mogale, makes me want to work harder and leave a dent in the world so her journey can be a bit better.

Thuli Madonsela, I love her authenticity – she tells her truth in silence (you don’t have to be loud to be heard, listen more talk less).

Mashangu Harry Maluleka, my late father – I have never known greater love than this, his absence in my heart is a reminder of the dent he left in this world.

Favourite South African cuisine? Tripe and dumplings, curry anything (especially lamb curry), samoosa’s, oxtail and samp.

Diving into academia can be intimidating however, everything is about perspective. Thank you to Nkhensani Mogale for giving us an insiders look into your career path and sharing your personal experiences. We are sure that there are many who share the same passion as you and are motivated to follow in your footsteps. All the best on your journey! See Nkhensani’s LinkedIn profile here.

♥ BWIS