PROFESSOR Afaf Girgis was nine years old when her family moved to Australia from Egypt.
Now, 50 years later, Professor Girgis is “absolutely chuffed” to be named a Member of the Order of Australia. She has been honoured for her significant service to medicine and medical education in the field of cancer control and psycho-oncology.
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“I actually got a little bit teary when I found out that I was being awarded the medal. It is really lovely,” Professor Girgis, of The Junction, said. “It is a very humbling thing, and I really do feel quite honoured. I’ve been working in the field for 27 or so years, and to be recognised for the work, and to be nominated by peers, is just fabulous.
“This year marks our 50 years in Australia, which is fantastic, because I feel like I am also a role model for people of my heritage – that you can come to a new country, and you can really establish yourself and achieve something.
“It is a bit of a double whammy. To be here, celebrating 50 years in Australia, and getting this wonderful award.”
Professor Girgis’ research has had an international influence on clinical practice in cancer treatment.
Her guidelines have been adopted by medical school training programs globally, helping to shift and shape the way bad news is broken to cancer patients.
Professor Girgis has also been a teacher, role model and mentor to junior researchers.
“Having a hand in building up the younger workforce, and seeing what they have been able to achieve over the years, is probably one of my proudest achievements,” she said. “I have had such a wonderful team of collaborators, mentors and colleagues that have been there for me all through the years. I wouldn’t have gotten where I have without them.”
Professor Girgis grew up and studied in Newcastle, but it was while working alongside women who had breast cancer during a stint in Sydney that her interest in psycho-oncology developed.
She has since dedicated much of her career to improving the psycho-social experiences of people experiencing cancer, and their carers – who were often in need of “significant” support.
She is also looking into “survivorship”, and at ensuring equity of support and care for people from culturally-diverse backgrounds.
Professor Girgis has produced about 300 peer-reviewed publications.
“If we just do the research and don’t tell anyone about it, it’s not going to improve the field,” she said. “Having a wonderfully supportive family that is really proud of the work that I do has really helped me through the rough patches, as well as the good ones,” she said.