Facing the fallibility of the human body

Wednesday 8 September I had woken up reminding myself to chat to Anson for tips on having an MRI, as I was scheduled for one the next day. Anson was the ideal person to reach out to – not only had he experienced his fair share of MRIs over the past year following his diagnosis with head and neck cancer, but he is also a dear friend, colleague and mentor. Professor Anson Mackay was one of my three PhD supervisors, and based at UCL, he was my primary point of contact during the split site component of my PhD that I had spent at the Environmental Change Research Centre at UCL in their Geography department. Since completing my PhD, Anson has become my most valued mentor, an enthusiastic research collaborator, and really a very dear friend. 

As someone who is far more comfortable hiding away from fear than facing it, I managed to ‘forget’ to contact Anson throughout that day. The idea popped into my head every once in a while, only to be squashed by the next conference talk that I hopped onto Zoom for; I was in the middle of the SSAG/SAAG Conference that week, presenting two papers, and mentoring a large group of my postgraduate students who were presenting for the first time at an academic conference. I didn’t even think I had that much to fear – the MRI, MRA and Doppler were very much a precaution to rule out anything sinister. I have struggled with my thyroid this year. I have an autoimmune thyroid condition – Hashimotos thyroiditis, which is treated by replacing the thyroid hormones that are under-produced by your body. At the beginning of January, these thyroid levels were being quite dramatically over-replaced through over-medication and an acute thyroiditis, resulting in a range of unpleasant symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Following the subsequent reduction of my dose of thyroid replacement hormones when this was detected, it took about 3 months to reach normal range, and a further 3 months to start to feel myself again. The first three months coincided with the very stressful preparation and teaching of an all-online module to our first years, as the second wave of COVID-19 was in full force. There was no time for sick leave, and I just pushed through, one day at a time. Back to the present, at the 9-month mark I was still struggling with occasional dizziness, and hence it made sense to do an MRI (and MRA and doppler of the carotid artery) to check that there wasn’t anything more sinister behind it. I was largely convinced there was not. 

I saw Anson’s name pop up in my inbox that evening – and as I saw it, I remembered again to ask him for tips. His email, although partly discussing possible projects and PhD cosupervision, was also letting me know that the CT scan he’d recently had showed abnormalities. My heart sank. He was still optimistic in that email that it could be a red herring, and gave me some really excellent advice on how to stay calm in an MRI. 

I did manage to stay calm, and thank goodness the MRI, MRA and doppler came back clear. I did wonder briefly, while lying in the MRI, whether my productivity and success was perhaps just an Amelia Sheppard-type brain tumour (Grey’s Anatomy fans would understand). Fortunately not. Anson, however, was not as lucky. After fighting and overcoming neck cancer in 2020, and subsequently running multiple ultramarathons, he has just been diagnosed with a new primary cancer – this time of the lungs. I received a text from him to let me know last week, shortly before he started publishing on his cancer blog again. The news is devastating. To me personally, but also because I can only just begin to understand what this has felt like for him and his partner David. I am scared – one of the most important and influencial people in my life has cancer for a second time; this time far more difficult to treat, and so he’s looking at what life with cancer will look like, rather than the path to eradicate it. We have so many projects planned, projects that involve helicopter trips to South Africa’s highest peak, road trips through Lesotho to collect samples, and so much data to analyse. I have so much still to learn from Anson – about diatoms and isotopes, about academia, and about life. I need to keep reminding myself that I will still have time to learn from Anson, we just might need to both pace ourselves a bit better.

It also all feels so terribly unfair. Anson has run ultramarathons in the past 18 months! The feeling of illness being unfair is one I feel in relation to Anson’s diagnosis and my own health challenges – a year ago I was pushing myself too hard, working long hours, taking on too much, and struggling to effectively handle stress. All very standard in academia, and indeed often glamourised. I had been doing this my whole life. It is no surprise then that I would eventually have had to face the fallibility of my own health, and at the beginning of the year it was scary not understanding what was wrong and whether this was all just my thyroid. However, 9 months later I have taken a 5-month sabbatical (albeit still a busy one with many research deadlines, and commitments to various societies), gone on at least a 2km each day (most days 3.5km, some days 8km), developed a better sleep cycle, reduced my workload to something a little bit more manageable, started doing Yoga regularly, and eaten a more balanced diet. Yet I still struggle with my health fairly often; I still don’t quite feel myself as reliably as I used to, and can’t just push myself to handle the next thing that lands on my plate. It feels unfair – I am taking things slowly, I am paying attention to my health, and I still don’t feel quite right. I don’t know how to feel that way again, and while I do want to feel reliably healthy, perhaps I shouldn’t want or aspire to go back to doing every and anything. 

Life throws curveballs at us, and the lessons aren’t always clear. Sometimes bad news is just bad news, and if this year has taught me anything, it is to sit with the fear, the loss, the devastation and just feel it. As difficult as that is. And then learn – how to make work more sustainable, how to enjoy each day, and how to become the best parts of the people I most look up to.

How my academic story changed from average to cum laude

Having completed high school with low marks and staying at home for 3 gap years, a lot of people ask how I eventually managed to obtain my degrees cum laude and obtain various accolades. I wish I could give a classic copy-paste solution to overcome some of the challenges I faced, but everyone is different and there is no specific formula to tackle various challenges. However, in this blog I aim to provide some tips on how to avoid some of the difficulties I faced, and various adjustments I made when I got into university. I believe some of these lessons I learnt could be beneficial to young high school students seeking to pursue university education in future, or current university students that need to make adjustments to maximize their academic performance.

Apply for as many programs and universities as you possibly can

One common mistake that many students make is limiting themselves to a specific area of study or just specific universities. I personally had an interest in Pharmacy, and I applied for that area of study at only two universities. Little did I know that it was a very competitive space, and I could have maximized my chance of university acceptance by diversifying the degrees I applied for and applying at more universities. When one has lower marks, they could apply for a related program that a has lower entry requirements, then improve their marks during their first semester, which could then improve the chances of being accepted into the degree they wanted to get into. In my case, I started off with a BSc degree, and chose science-based modules that provided good scientific knowledge required for post-graduate studies in Pharmacology. In my undergraduate studies, I worked hard, and eventually graduated with high marks that allowed me to pursue post-graduate studies in Pharmacology.

Be watchful of the company you keep

There’s no truer statement than “you eventually become the company you keep”. One therefore needs to be wary of the kind of people you surround yourself with, as they will eventually determine who you become. The university is a social space, and you are bound to meeting individuals from different backgrounds. If you surround yourself with playful friends, you eventually become playful, and the opposite is true regarding determined individuals. In my case, having experienced the disadvantage of having playful friends during my gap years, I carefully chose the friends I surrounded myself with, and this indeed help to keep me inspired and focus on my academics. Additionally, it is important to have a mentor to assist you throughout the journey, you should check with your faculty on how to obtain a mentor, as some universities do have free mentorship programs, such as the STARS Mentorship Programme at the university of Pretoria.

Your mental health matters – take care of it

The university environment can take a toll on one’s mental health, it is therefore important for one to carefully take care of their mental wellbeing. Staying far from family, failing some tests and general academic pressure can all cause various mental health problems. Fortunately, Universities have free student counseling units to assist with mental health issues that students may be facing. These are safe spaces, where your issues will be kept confidential, and you can obtain the best assistance regarding mental health, I highly recommend that students use such facilities. Finally, for you to make it, it is important to believe in yourself despite the challenges or failures you may face along the way, a made-up mind is a powerful mind!!

I recently participated in a live interview discussing some of the issues addressed in this blog, you can watch the video here: