Cancer Diagnosis did not Deter Doctoral Graduate

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Cancer survivor Ms Indira Gilbert graduates with
a Doctorate in Social Work.

Ms Indira Gilbert was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram a week before Christmas Day in 2011.

While the diagnosis may have deterred many others, Gilbert – who was studying towards her Doctorate in Social Work at the time – soldiered on and graduated.

 ‘The diagnosis was shattering. I always thought I was in total control of my life but the shock diagnosis meant I had to submit to cancer and the consequent treatment, which became the focal point of my life for a year,’ said Gilbert.

‘Treatment affected my focus, my concentration, my memory and my emotions, among other things. I was not able to continue with aspects of my research.’

Her unwavering faith and trust in God and her loved ones’ support were pivotal. ‘It is surprising, but the inner strength we possess comes to the forefront and sees us through in times of crisis. My austere upbringing, with stable, dedicated parents who fought tremendous hardship, and encouraged their children to pursue their dreams, helped me persevere.

‘My parents’ belief and faith in God, despite their hardships, taught me not to lose faith but rather to cling to the promises of Christ. My faith carried me through the most depressing times and I am a stronger person now!’

Gilbert is currently in remission but on chronic medication. ‘I must have annual tests to confirm that my body is cancer-free. Therefore, I attempt to live each day to the fullest.’

Gilbert’s research focused on abortion and was based on a personal tragedy. ‘Abortion initially gained my focus and interest when I lost my twin boys 20 weeks into my pregnancy due to medical complications. I became extremely interested in the development of the fetus and the emotions of those who lose their unborn.

‘My experience led to me questioning why women abort, and what emotions they experience during the decision-making process, the abortion itself, and the period subsequent. At the time of my registration for the PhD, local newspapers reported escalating rates of abortion including those by teenagers. These things motivated my decision on my research topic.’

Gilbert’s research primarily focused on women’s circumstances, their decision-making process, their experiences during and after the abortion, and the support systems available to them during each stage.

The research included men whose spouse/partner/family member had undergone an abortion. They were given an opportunity to relate their experiences while service providers, medical doctors and nurses, were also an integral part of the research.     

Gilbert believes that South Africa has a long way to go to empower its women and honour the Constitution. ‘The research challenges certain traditions in some cultures and religions that treat women as subservient, and men who have several partners and father many children with different women as macho.

‘If the recommendations in the research are considered seriously and acted upon by relevant government authorities, the circumstances of women in South Africa will not only improve but the development of new generations of men will be different, boding for a more positive outlook for South African society.’

She has also written and published two handbooks for Adolescents and Parents and is keen to continue writing, conducting research in the social services arena for organisations and doing community service to empower women and educate men.

‘To my family and friends who have supported me during my cancer treatment and subsequently, I wish to say that you have blessed me in ways that you will never fathom. You have given me strength to pursue my goal despite my set-back,’ said Gilbert.

‘I also wish to thank my husband who supported and encouraged me especially when I was low in energy and motivation, and my brother whose sacrifice and actions of love steered me onto the academic path, and who has enthusiastically supported every venture of mine. And many thanks to my research supervisor Professor Vishanthie Sewpaul.’