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14 December 2018
PhD graduate excels despite battling breast cancer

Image credit: Sikhulule Nkomphela

(Published - 14 December 2018)

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) originated under apartheid as an under-resourced tertiary institution intended for coloureds only. But today UWC is a leading African university. It has taken on the role of being a vehicle for change and growth on the continent, by producing top academics and students from many parts of Africa.

One such outstanding student is Dr Lela Mukaruzima from Rwanda. Her thesis looked at the development of a brief to facilitate the implementation of a physical activity policy in Rwanda.

She graduated on Friday, 14 December, but it has been particularly difficult to reach the finish line because she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.

After completing her Honours, and subsequently earning her Masters in Physiotherapy at UWC in 2010 she went home to pursue her career and start a family. But in 2014 she was back on the UWC campus to chase another dream - studying towards her PhD. In 2015 Dr Mukaruzima found a lump under her armpit and after a few medical examinations she was dealt the devastating news.

She still struggles to contain her emotions when she speaks about it.

“I felt like my dreams had been shattered, that my whole world had come to an end. At that stage I had just started my research project after my proposal was accepted...and for a brief moment I had no hope for the future,” said Dr Mukaruzima.

She often agonised over how she would survive, but there was a silver lining.

“I had wonderful support here at UWC from a few close friends who I had met along the way within that period.”

Her supervisor was none other than Professor Josè Frantz, UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation. Dr Mukaruzima described Professor Frantz as “amazingly supportive”. “She encouraged and nudged me on at times when I was battling to trust myself and to push through.”

The cancer has gone but Dr Mukaruzima is still trying to heal emotionally.

“What kept me going was that I believed that God didn’t bring me all this way, just to die. I knew I would complete this at whatever cost and I would finish alive and return home with my degree.”