When a dental appointment turns into harrowing news

Isaac’s journey and his battle with cancer underline the critical need for research.

Isaac Zahra was 20 years old and on his path to becoming a doctor, when life handed him an unexpected challenge: he was diagnosed with leukaemia, a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.

It all started with a routine visit to the dentist. During the check-up, the dentist noticed an unusual ulcer in his mouth and suggested he get a blood test just to be safe. He took the advice and soon after, the results confirmed a diagnosis that turned his world upside down. What had begun as a simple dental appointment quickly shifted his everyday life into a series of hospital visits and treatments. Despite the harrowing diagnosis, and having to take some time off, Isaac continued to pursue his studies with a determination that has become an inspiration to many.

His words carry relevance when he speaks about the importance of research in battling cancer. “It is crucial to conduct research. Cancer has proliferated, yet our understanding and treatments have a long way to go. Without research and the necessary funding to support it, we would be far from finding solutions that genuinely enhance the lives of patients,” Isaac said to The Journal.

His remarks were in response to a significant announcement by Keith Azzopardi Tanti, the Parliamentary Secretary for Youth, Research and Innovation. A new Foundation that will operate the Centre for Research and Innovation on cancer in Malta has been announced, aiming to synergise local and European strategies in combating cancer.

The objective, as Isaac highlighted, is to innovate in treatment methods that reduce the adverse effects on patients. “Doctors are hopeful that, in the future, chemotherapy will be replaced by treatments that are less harsh on patients,” he explained.

Isaac’s journey and his battle with cancer underline the critical need for such research. “Cancer encompasses a broad spectrum of diseases. It’s imperative that we understand these variations to be able to come up with effective treatments,” he added.

The Centre aims to combine local insights with European advancements in the field, potentially leading to significant breakthroughs in cancer research. According to the European cancer information system, over 2,700 individuals were expected to be diagnosed with cancer in Malta in 2022 alone. Such statistics only underscore the urgency and the necessity of this new initiative.

Parliamentary Secretary Azzopardi shared personal motivations behind his commitment, citing experiences of family and friends affected by the disease as a driving force. “This step was necessary,” Azzopardi Tanti remarked, stressing the search of excellence in this critical fight against cancer.

The Foundation, designed to be independent and autonomous, will eventually extend its influence into the educational sector to disseminate knowledge about cancer and its treatments widely. Dr Christian Scerri, the Chairman of the Foundation, outlined that this initiative is part of a broader EU plan and aligns with Malta’s national cancer strategy.

Dr Scerri emphasised that, while cancer research in Malta is progressing, the new hub will enhance collaboration among researchers, encouraging more impactful outcomes. He also highlighted the holistic approach of the Foundation, which supports patients before, during, and after treatment, focusing on psychological and social assistance to improve overall quality of life.

“This is a long-term dream,” Dr Scerri concluded, “an ambitious project that aims to profoundly improve the lives of people.”

Isaac believes that his personal battle with leukaemia will make him a more empathetic doctor, giving him a unique perspective on patient care. Although he hasn’t yet decided which medical field to specialise in, he feels drawn to areas where he can use his personal experience to connect with and support his patients.

He admits that his own journey through illness has instilled in him a special kind of tenderness and understanding for what patients endure. His firsthand knowledge allows him to relate deeply to their struggles and fears. Isaac also sees his experience as a source of strength that he can share, offering hope and encouragement to others facing similar challenges. He feels that this could be a powerful way to support his future patients, not just through medical treatment, but also by boosting their spirits and helping them find the courage to fight their illnesses.

With just a year left to complete his university degree, Isaac stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the critical role of sustained research and innovation in fighting cancer. His story is not just one of personal survival but a beacon of hope for future advancements in cancer treatment and care.

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