Afaf Girgis: a leading Australian cancer researcher

A young Afaf, destined to be one of Australia’s leading researchers.

By Linda Music

In 1969, a nine year old Egyptian girl with not a word of English arrived on Australian soil. 51 years later, that little girl has become one of Australia’s leading researchers in cancer survivorship and psycho-oncology and is this month’s CONCERT member of the month.

Professor Afaf Girgis has made such an important contribution to cancer research in Australia that she was awarded an Order of Australia (AM) award in 2019 for her significant service to medicine and medical education in the field of cancer control and psycho-oncology.

But she hadn’t always planned on being a behavioural scientist.

“I actually started my science degree with the intention of being a biologist. Psychology was a Year 1 fill-in subject but by Year 2, I knew that psychology/behavioural science was to be my focus.

Professor Girgis’ early years focused on cancer prevention and early detection. In 1996, she was seconded to the National breast Cancer Centre when it was first established, and it was her time there that cemented her focus in the psychosocial aspects of cancer.

“The personal (sometimes horror) stories of the women with breast cancer across Australia pulled me into the field of psycho-oncology, and here I’ve stayed.”

When Prof Girgis completed her PhD, Australian health services’ focus on psycho-oncology was in its infancy. She developed validated assessment tools and documenting cancer patients’ high unmet needs, driving practice change in NSW Cancer centres. She also documented doctor-patient communication gaps and developed Breaking Bad News Guidelines, which were widely adopted in Australian medical schools and internationally, incorporated into clinical practice guidelines, and included in communication skills training she delivered in Australia and USA in the mid-late 1990s.

In 2014, she co-developed a priority setting framework for reducing evidence-practice gaps in cancer control; and authored psychosocial chapters in national clinical practice guidelines (via Cancer Council Australia, most recently in 2017 and 2018). In 2018, she co-led the successful Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) $2Million Capital Works funding application to establish a cancer survivorship research centre.

Prior to 2011, Prof Girgis led a highly productive research team at the University of Newcastle, whose research informed evidence-based psychosocial care delivered by the Cancer Council NSW and Newcastle cancer services for 15+ years.

When she moved to the University of NSW in 2011, she established the Psycho-oncology Research Group, which has grown from two to 15 people. She was a chief investigator in establishing the Cancer Institute NSW Centre for Oncology Education and Research Translation (CONCERT); and holds Conjoint appointments at Western Sydney University, Griffith University and University of Queensland.

In her 30 years in the profession, Prof Girgis has seen a major change in the way patient psychosocial wellbeing is viewed.

“It’s been fantastic to be part of that major shift in the landscape, with much more harmonious collaborations between researchers, clinicians and others working at the coalface, and a much stronger consumer voice driving the research agenda.”

And, after all this time, Prof Girgis is just as passionate about her work.

‘I feel like I landed my most satisfying job when I joined UNSW/Ingham Institute just over nine years ago and I feel blessed that many of my colleagues are also friends.

When she’s not working, you’ll find Prof Girgis cooking for her family, taking long walks along the coast, knitting blankets for charity or officiating at weddings. Yes, you read that right. Amongst all her other roles, Prof Girgis is also an official celebrant.

“Prompted by my best friend’s son, who wanted me to be the celebrant for his wedding, I completed a Cert IV in Celebrancy last year and officiated his wedding last November. Look me up for weddings, vow renewals, baby naming ceremonies, memorials etc. I love it!!!”

51 years ago, a small girl came to Australia and since then she has made a considerable difference to the Australian cancer research landscape and CONCERT is proud to feature her as this month’s Member of the Month.

By Linda Music