Professor Helen Zorbas on growing up Greek and being a role model for young doctors

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“Eight women lose their lives to breast cancer every day in Australia and the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s (NBCF) mission, which is to eliminate breast cancer deaths, is very bold and ambitious but one that I believe is worth investing in,” Professor Helen Zorbas, who is Chair at the NBCF, tells The Greek Herald exclusively.

Professor Zorbas’ passion for breast cancer research should come as no surprise. For over 45 years she has been dedicated to this specialist area, having been a breast physician in the public and private health sector and later, CEO of Cancer Australia for nine years. Now, as Chair at the NBCF, she is leading Australia’s key national body funding world-class and game-changing research into breast cancer prevention and treatment.

But with such an extensive repertoire, it’s interesting to hear that Professor Zorbas wasn’t even sure what she wanted to be when she was young. In fact, she says it was the advice of a ‘wonderful, wise uncle’ of hers which inspired her.

Professor Helen Zorbas (left) has always been passionate about breast cancer awareness. She is photographed here with former Australian PM, Julia Gillard.

“No one ever suggested that I should go into medicine until I was in Year 11, going into Year 12, and my Headmistress… asked me what I was going to do and I said, ‘I really love science and I love people and I’m not quite sure how to bring that together.’ And she said, ‘go away and think about that some more’,” Professor Zorbas tells The Greek Herald.

“I have a very wonderful, wise uncle and I spoke to him about not knowing where I wanted to land with this and he said, ‘Have you thought about being a doctor?’ and it actually hadn’t occurred to me. Perhaps I thought it was beyond me. I don’t know. But once he put it in my head… it sort of grew a seed inside of me and that was it. I’ve never looked back.”

The female GP making waves:

And it would’ve been so easy for Professor Zorbas to change her mind. Studying to become a General Practitioner (GP), and later a specialist breast physician, was no easy task. It involved hard work, dedication and years of studying medicine at the University of Sydney. Add to that the fact that Professor Zorbas was also raising three young children at the time.

But even with all these extra responsibilities, Professor Zorbas says she loved the challenge as she was able to foster her passion for women’s health in a clinical environment dominated by male GP’s at the time.

“I worked in General Practice for about 14 years… and a number of female patients were attracted to coming to see me in a clinic or a General Practice which in those days, was dominated by male GP’s. It was a natural transition that they would feel more comfortable seeing a female GP at the time,” Professor Zorbas says.

“And so that developed in me a particular interest in women’s health and led me to further study in breast cancer and I became a breast physician, working in both the private and public settings in breast disease and in cancer diagnosis, treatment and follow up.”

Professor Zorbas was the CEO of Cancer Australia for nine years. Photo: Office of the Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Making a name for oneself in a health field dominated by males would be difficult for anyone. But Professor Zorbas says it was achievable back then and it’s possible to do the same today. When we asked how, she humbly acknowledged that while she doesn’t consider herself a role model, she did have some words of advice for young doctors.

“It doesn’t stop with just getting your degree. There’s lots of hard yards after that as well. But if you’re passionate about what you do, then you don’t begrudge it so much. You really do it with your heart and soul,” Professor Zorbas explains.

“And don’t be too rigid about where you’re going to end up. Be open to new doors and new challenges when they appear on your path.”

‘I have a deep pride in my Greek heritage’:

Professor Zorbas herself had a new door open for her in 2015 when she became a Board of Director at The Hellenic Initiative Australia (THI Australia). Some may think this role is a bit ‘left-of-field’ for someone with such a strong background in medicine and health. But on closer inspection, it’s clear Professor Zorbas was made for this role.

She is a first generation Greek Australian born in Sydney, with both parents ‘from the beautiful island of Crete.’ She says she was brought up to maintain Greek traditions and customs at home and as a result, she developed a deep pride in her Greek heritage.

Something which has only been fostered further through THI Australia, which partners with eight innovative NGO’s in Greece to deliver programs that provide immediate relief and hope for the future.

Professor Zorbas, Niki Zolota, Pedtrauma Program Manager, and Kastoria Hospital Medical Service Director, Dr Christos Lazarou, at the opening of the Kastoria Paediatric Trauma Clinic, one of five hospitals THI Australia supports.

“We upheld Greek traditions and customs at home and we spoke Greek to my parents, even though they spoke English, and it was important to keep up that Greek heritage if you like,” Professor Zorbas says.

“Ever since, I have had a deepfelt pride in my Greek heritage and a strong emotional tie to the homeland, while also being very proud to be Australian. So being on the Board of THI Australia has been very important to me because I feel it’s an obligation to give back to our homeland.”

One way that Professor Zorbas has been able to give back is through THI Australia’s new collaboration with Doctors of the World Greece (MdM Greece), which will provide access to public health services for more than 2,800 disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Athens.  

“I’m really thrilled that just in the very first month of this 12-month project, MdM Greece provided medical care to over 460 patients and that included consultations, emergency pharmaceuticals, specialist referrals and medical follow-ups,” she says.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about looking at the immediate needs of people in vulnerable communities, but also building capacity for the future and building hope.”

Important goals which we’re sure Professor Zorbas will continue to champion as she remains dedicated to breast cancer research and more broadly, philanthropic initiatives inspired by her Greek heritage.

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