Durbanville woman battles brain tumours to earn PhD

Dr Amy Martin at her graduation ceremony at Stellenbosch University on Wednesday April 6.

Dr Amy Martin, of Durbanville, hopes her struggle with brain tumours can inspire others who face seemingly impossible odds in the pursuit of their goals.

She recently completed her PhD in Ancient Cultures at Stellenbosch University and graduated on Wednesday April 6.

Throughout her high school career, she battled brain tumours, seizures and underwent various surgeries during which a part of her brain was removed.

At 14, she was first diagnosed with a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma, which is a rare childhood brain tumour, according to the National Organisation for Rare Diseases.

“I was having dinner with my family, when I noticed that the fork fell out my hand. I realised that my arm was semi-paralysed because I could not move it properly. When I tried to tell my family at the table I could not talk properly as I was slurring. I realised then that something was wrong.”

The symptoms she experienced at the dinner would occur sporadically and she had terrible headaches.

“About a year later, I started getting epilepsy. At 17, the tumour had grown back and I went for a second brain operation to have neuro electrodes placed on my brain so that they could monitor my brain patterns and determine where the seizures started. A few weeks later, I underwent a third operation to remove the second tumour as well as the part of the brain that had caused the epilepsy.”

She describes high school as a very difficult period: she felt uncomfortable leaving her house at times or feared having a seizure in public.

“I was constantly scared that the tumours and seizures would come back. I faced many challenges: my balance was always off, I was often dizzy and struggled with basic motor functions. I had to go for physiotherapy and I was often on bed rest because there was still some swelling of the brain.”

Despite these challenges, she still poured her focus and dedication into her studies.

“I managed this difficult time by focusing on my university studies and excelling in my field. To me, my academic success was strongly linked to my desire to prove to myself that I was still a capable person despite my neurological disabilities.”

By the time she enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Stellenbosch University in 2008, she noticed that her epilepsy had disappeared.

“It became much better from my first year. I still had to go for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans every two years, but they always came back clear. The Stellenbosch community was also very open and friendly. I was also very lucky to study in a department that was very considerate of my challenges, that supported me and provided me with the means to test myself and my capabilities.”

During her university years, she no longer had to worry about getting seizures in the classroom.

“By then, the operations were successful. The relief was immense. I could finally feel like a normal student who went out with friends and spent hours in the library studying with fellow students.”

She says she was ecstatic when she earned her PhD. “I had worked so hard and for so many years to achieve this goal. Standing on that stage, receiving my certificate in front of hundreds of people, it was one of the most incredible movements of my life.”

She encourages those dealing with a physical or mental illness to recognise the hardships they face as well as the strides they have made.

“Above all, recognise the courage required to get up every morning to confront these challenges every day, over and over again. It’s normal to feel hopeless. But lean on family and friends during these difficult days, and make the most of the easier ones.”