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Grounded in hope

For someone not yet 50 years old, Alicia Sherriff’s achievements are impressive. Not only is she a professor in clinical and radiation oncology, she also heads the oncology unit at the Universitas Hospital Annex in Bloemfontein. Here she speaks to Get It about how medicine chose her, why she decided to work with cancer patients, and how hope is a multi-layered thing…

Alicia grew up in Monte Vista, Cape Town, a serious, studious girl. “I took life very seriously and from early on was focused and academically inclined with a passion for art and maths.” Her parents, whom she describes as her “greatest supporters”, were employed in the banking sector and with her love for maths it was assumed that Alicia would study accounting. She, however, feared that her desire for caring and her passion for interacting with people would not be fulfilled if she pursued a career in accounting. When the time came to make a decision about what to study, Alicia realised that medicine combined science, precision and compassion. An event that further cemented her decision to study medicine occurred during her teenage years. Her cousin, who was the same age as her, was diagnosed with rectal cancer. “As a family we became part of a screening programme at Stellenbosch University for familial polyposis. This created an awareness in me about cancers and the impact they could have on lives – young to old.”

After doing her houseman year at Kimberley Hospital, Alicia packed her bags to work in England for a year as a resident medical officer. “I already knew that I would like to specialise in oncology. Therefore, I requested to be placed at hospitals where there were oncology and palliative care facilities. I got the opportunity to assist in theatre, gave chemotherapies, managed side effects, put up chemo drips, carried bed pans, and sat at the bedside of terminal patients while they told this foreign doctor about the life they had lived,” she remembers.

While in England, Alicia asked around and was told that the best place to specialise in clinical and radiation oncology was at the University of the Free State. Fortuitously, there was an opening for her to specialise and she returned from England earlier to begin her path with what she calls her “special oncology family at Universitas Annex”. Her “oncology family” included the Head of Department, Prof. Louis Goedhals, who became a great mentor to her. “The friends and colleagues who I have had (fellow registrars, fellow specialists, nursing staff, radiographers, administrative staff, cleaners and porters) over the past 23 years have shaped me, supported me through tears and laughter on a personal and professional level, and while some have moved far away, the bonds that we’ve built will stand the test of time.”

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Alicia, who comes across as having zero ego, remarks that she has learnt so much from her patients and their families over the years, especially regarding hope. “Hope has a few layers,” she explains. “There is the science of cancer therapy where there are continuous new developments in systemic therapy and new radiation therapy techniques, which are exciting, and which requires us to be constant students within our profession. Then there is the hope of human nature where difficult experiences bring greater awareness in so many of our patients. The other fact that you must make your own early on in your career as an oncologist is our departmental motto: To CURE sometimes, to RELIEVE often, to COMFORT always.”

But, Alicia is more than an oncology professor, she is also a daughter, a wife and a mother, and a passionate animal and nature lover. She met her husband, a mechanical engineer, in her first year of specialisation. “We got married in 2000 and were blessed with a precious redhead daughter in 2007. My dad calls her ‘Vlammetjie’.” Alicia says their daughter shares her parents love for maths, “so that is where her future lies”. My curiosity is piqued, and I wonder aloud if ‘Vlammetjie’ is as serious as her mother was as a child? “I often wish I was not as hard on myself as a child and was a bit more carefree.” Yet, despite her earnest, bookish childhood, it’s clear that it did not douse the flame of hope in Alicia Sherriff’s heart.

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