PhD Study was Graduate’s “Personal Everest!”
‘I am not an academic so the doctoral degree will not materially change my career, but achieving it has been my own personal Everest and I am very pleased I managed to complete the climb.’
These were the words of an elated 62-year-old Psychologist, Dr Helena van Oers who graduated with a PhD in Family Medicine following a study on the psychological experiences of breast cancer patients.
Supervised by Professor Lourens Schlebusch and Professor Bernhard Gaede, van Oers’s thesis was titled: The Experience of Anxiety and Depression and their Sequelae in Breast Cancer Patients: Effects of Disease and Treatment on Patient Self-Esteem, Body Image and the Prevalence of Hopelessness and Suicidal Ideation. Van Oers’s study focused on the psychological experiences of breast cancer patients. ‘Psycho-oncology is a bit of a Cinderella area and yet I believe it is an essential element of any cancer patient’s journey through the disease and treatment,’ she said.
‘All too often the psychological aspects get overlooked in the physical crisis so I hope this study will highlight the importance of my field for the benefit of all patients.’
The study found that breast cancer patients experience their disease and treatment uniquely, given that the female breast holds such symbolic and functional significance. ‘The results indicated that, in comparison to other sites of disease, breast patients experienced greater body image distress and higher levels of anxiety, hopelessness and stress which were expressed both through psychological and behavioural symptomatology,’ she said.
Van Oers hopes her findings will result in oncology healthcare professionals becoming more aware of how integral the psychological and emotional well-being of their patients really is in relation to their overall health.
Van Oers, who has been in private practice at an oncology outpatient facility for 25 years, says her work has always been enormously rewarding for her. ‘I have had the privilege of meeting so many very courageous and special people.’
She experienced challenges in her PhD journey. ‘From getting articles through the publication process to the very difficult times we all faced during the pandemic, it has been a challenging period in which to complete the degree.’
She paid tribute to the support she received from a large number of very helpful, accessible and kind people.
Van Oers, a wife and the mother of two sons, is a first-generation South African of Polish descent. ‘My parents instilled in me the value of knowledge and a love of learning. I have had a most rewarding career and am grateful to have lived through such interesting times,’ she said.
She enjoys entertaining and cooking, and doing sudoku and word puzzles.
Words: Nombuso Dlamini
Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan