My name is Catherine Mwaba and this my story…
A chance meeting in a corridor led to Dr. Catherine Mwaba becoming a cancer specialist. At the time, she was working as a doctor in a hematology-oncology unit in the department of Paediatrics when she bumped into one of her supervisors who mentioned that interviews were taking place to select doctors wanting to specialize in oncology (cancer). Catherine decided to go for the interviews, and she was successful. So, in 2003, she travelled to South Africa as one of a team of the first four doctors sponsored by the Zambian Government to study oncology (cancer).
‘I always say that being an oncologist is my calling because if I had not walked down that corridor that day, I would not have known about the interviews and the likelihood is I would not have become an oncologist,’ says Catherine.
Medicine was not Catherine’s first choice of a career. When she completed her secondary school education, she enrolled in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Zambia, although she didn’t make it to her second year. ‘I came from a secondary school environment which was very structured into a university where we were pretty much left alone to manage our own time and that was a challenge. It was the first time I had ever failed, so it was difficult to deal with,’ she says. Catherine then decided she wanted nothing to do with natural sciences and that she wanted to pursue a career in the corporate world, in either the fields of accountancy, mass communication, or banking. So, she set about applying for jobs, and in the process, she applied for a bursary to study International Relations and Economics in Russia, which was then the Soviet Union.
Her application was successful and Catherine travelled to Russia, only to find on arrival in Moscow that she had been placed in the School of Medicine and not International Relations which she had applied for. Catherine’s first reaction was to withdraw and return home because she did not want to study medicine. However, home was not an attractive option because there were tensions caused by her failing her first year at university and also the fact that living with her stepfather had been a challenge. And so Catherine – encouraged by other Zambian students in Russia – decided to give medicine a try.
Seven years later, Catherine graduated and returned to Zambia. Despite having qualified, Catherine was still not sure that the medical profession was for her. However, she decided to specialize in Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Zambia, as she loved working with children. Catherine did a rural internship in Kasama in 2000 (the northern region of Zambia) and then returned to continue her program in pediatrics on completion of her rural posting. During her early days as a doctor, Catherine struggled with the differences between the attitudes and perspectives of the staff that trained abroad and those that trained locally. She also struggled with the hierarchical structures that existed in Zambia. ‘In Russia, we were all doctors first then the hierarchy came second, so it was a challenge to work in an environment where hierarchy really counted,’ says Catherine.
Having worked as an oncologist (cancer specialist) at the Cancer Diseases Hospital (CDH) in Lusaka for over 12 years, Catherine who is now head of Clinical and Radiation Oncology section and an ardent cancer activist has seen a great improvement in the facilities available to cancer patients in Zambia over the years. The opening of CDH has made more services available to patients. ‘At times people don’t realize that the government is spending money to provide these services because they don’t see money changing hands,’ says Catherine, who goes on to explain that as a doctor, one can only do one’s best in a resource-constrained environment where one operates. ‘It is not easy to work as a doctor in Zambia. If I did my job in another country, I would earn four times what I earn now, but for me, it is not about monetary gain. If it were, I would have migrated by now,’ says Catherine, who adds that she is often asked by her family why she doesn’t go and work abroad where the facilities and the conditions of service are much better.
Despite having been undecided about being a doctor for many years, Catherine now believes she is where she should be. A pertinent question asked by her pastor during a sermon at church; meeting George W Bush and being part of the organizing team in support of his Pink Ribbon, Red Ribbon initiative and inspiration and encouragement from doctors in whose footsteps she is following are some factors that have helped Catherine settle into her career and change the way she looks at life. She says, ‘oncology has taught me to appreciate life. Yes, there is burnout and there are frustrations, but I know I am here for a reason. I know this is my calling.’
This story (edited) is from the book “Nthano Zathu: Breaking The Silence On Cancer In Zambia” – a Zambian Cancer Society publication written by Ellen Banda-Aaku and first published in 2015.