Meet the first black medical oncologist in SA
Posted on 20 August 2019
A pioneer in her own field, this Mediclinic Morningside medical oncologist is on a mission to improve the lives and futures of young girls in impoverished areas.
“I was motivated to do something for people who couldn’t pay me back. To invest in these girls, and inspire more young women, for the future.”
Dr Keorapetse Tabane is a doctor, a pioneer and an inspiration to millions of young girls all over SA. Having shown immense determination to qualify as the first black medical oncologist in the country, she is now determined to do more than simply be a role model – but to pay it forward by offering pro bono health and hygiene education in township schools.
Dr Tabane was born in Hebron, north of Pretoria, and matriculated from Tsogo High School in Mmakau. She completed a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University – formerly known as known as Medical University of South Africa, or Medunsa – in 1999, and completed her internship at Kalafong Hospital, Atteridgeville.
After a period of community service in Potgietersrus, followed by a stint in emergency medicine, she returned to Johannesburg in 2002 to specialise in internal medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand. She qualified as a specialist physician in 2005, and decided to sub-specialise.
In May 2008, Dr Tabane qualified as a medical oncologist. At the time, she was the first and only black medical oncologist in South Africa. Today, she is one of 17 such sub-specialists in the country.
“Eleven years ago there were not many medical oncologists in South Africa,” she says. “It was a severely under-explored field, and not a very popular specialty in general. I think this might have to do with the period of dedicated studying required, and the content of what we do. This is a form of treatment that requires emotional involvement with our patients – people who are facing life-or-death implications of a major disease.”
There are three principal forms of oncologist in SA: medical, surgical and radiation. A medical oncologist treats cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy.
Dr Tabane works in tandem with the multidisciplinary team of oncologists at Sandton Oncology, providing patients with a multifaceted treatment approach. “We look at each case from many angles, and decide on a course of treatment together. If a patient needs surgery first, then chemotherapy, or radiation first, or if they’re eligible to embark on a course of hormonal manipulation or immunotherapy, we can provide those treatments in a careful, targeted way, and adapt as we go.”
Immunotherapy is an innovative treatment that fights cancer by improving or boosting the body’s immune system as a natural defence mechanism. This treatment has proven particularly effective in patients with melanoma.
But she’s not stopping there. Dr Tabane has also started the HappiMe Foundation, together with Dr Fikile Tsela, a nephrologist at Mediclinic Heart Hospital.
HappiMe aims to fight gender inequality in townships in Gauteng by ensuring young girls are equipped with the knowledge and products they need to stay in school. “It’s estimated that as many as 4 million young girls in SA cannot afford to buy quality sanitary products,” says Dr Tabane. “This has a major effect on their confidence. When they miss out on school on a regular basis, it becomes apparent that they have this problem – and that’s when they start to see themselves as the face of poverty.”
By bringing high-quality, affordable sanitary products to girls in impoverished communities, Dr Tabane and Dr Tsela hope to inspire a generation of young women to own their health journeys. “When we come to these girls, their faces light up. We need to help them believe that they, too, can be whatever they want to be. How do we ensure these girls believe in themselves and know the difference they can make? The solution to this problem lies within us. We are the answer.”