UW-Green Bay 2009 Commencement Address

Commencement Speaker
Mokenge Malafa, M.D.

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement. 27 years ago I was in your shoes. What I did not know then was that I had just received one of the finest educations in the world and that I was about to embark on a journey that would need a lot of the skills and character which I developed here in Green Bay. Today I would like to share three stories from my life with you.

Mokenge Malafa, M.D.

Mokenge Malafa, M.D.

The first story is about the people that influenced the direction of my life.

One question that I am asked all the time is how did a poor kid from Africa end up with a college education from Green Bay, Wisconsin?

It started before I was born. My father and mother were immigrants in Africa. My father and mother were both born in Buea, Cameroon. Buea was in the English speaking part of Cameroon which was governed with Nigeria by the British until 1960 when Nigeria gained its independence. My father, a policeman was on a tour of duty in Lagos when I was born in 1958. When independence from the colonial powers came, and our tiny English speaking area in the Cameroons was gobbled up by the larger French speaking part of the Cameroons my father was caught between two countries. Should he return to his village and be consumed by the politics or remain in Nigeria to pursue his career? He chose to remain in Nigeria where he raised his family as an exile. My father had never graduated from college and my mother was married off to my father before she started high school.

When I was in high school the first person who sparked my imagination for higher education was Sr. Kathleen. Sr. Kathleen was a nun from Ireland who was the principal of my catholic high school. My high school was a boarding school. During those formative years of my life I accompanied her on her visitations, which involved long walks to visit the sick in hospitals and the poor in villages. During those walks I remember her instilling in me the concept that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to. So, I decided that I wanted to be a catholic priest. When she came with me to my home to convince my parents to allow me to enter the seminary it did not work. My father was adamantly opposed to losing his germ line to catholic priesthood. In search of another profession that was close to priesthood, I decided that I wanted to become a doctor. The problem was that for a Cameroon immigrant to get a medical education in the national universities in Nigeria was no small joke. So, my parents decided to try the option of sending me to France, where most Africans from the French colonial territories went to get their higher education. So at age 15 I found myself with a one way ticket to Paris.

In Paris I met another individual who influenced my future. Jim Reynolds was a tall lanky African American man from Chicago who was in Paris working with IBM. We became casual friends through my cousin Claudia, who was his girlfriend. He was the person who encouraged me to apply to UW-Green Bay for a college education. When he found out that I was trying to get a college education in Paris, he asked me why I did not try to study in America. I told him that I would be excited about an American education but was concerned that I would not be accepted because I did not have the wealth to pay. He told me that I should try one of the Universities in Wisconsin. He told me his personal experience with the University of Wisconsin system. I learned that he was a poor kid from Chicago who was given a chance to play basketball and get a college education in Wisconsin. He reasoned that if a poor kid from the ghettos of Chicago can be given a chance in the University of Wisconsin system, then a poor kid from Africa may have a chance. He urged me to apply. I did, and was blessed with an admission to UW-GB.

On a Sunday in September 1978, I got off a plane in Green Bay and took a cab to the YMCA. My first impression of Green Bay after the hustle and bustle of Paris was that I had arrived in a ghost town. Later, I learned that the Packers were playing in Lambeau field. So everybody was either in the stadium or at home in front of the TV. The next day after I gave up waiting for a bus to take me to the campus, I started to hitchhike. A kind lady with her son picked me up and brought me to the campus. That encounter was the beginning of one of the most important relationships in my life. This lady exemplifies the Midwestern spirit. Her support, friendship, and advice have been invaluable to me for the last 30 years. This wonderful woman was at the time the secretary to the chancellor and is now the widow to the great founding chancellor of this university. I am talking about Marge Weidner. Stand up Marge and let us publicly acknowledge your generous spirit and support not only to me but to the many other international students who were blessed with your generosity and love. For many of us, she was our American Mom.

Sr. Kathleen, Jim Reynolds, Marge Weidner, and many more individuals have made such a difference in my life. Of course it was impossible to know that these individuals would have such an impact on the direction of my life when I first met them. But it is very clear looking backwards, 30 years later. Remember that everyone has something to give, to teach, and to make you think. Just listen, respect, try to understand and whenever possible try to help. You may never realize the impact of seemingly small gestures of thoughtfulness. I am here today to tell you that I am the product of many random acts of kindness.

My second story is about obstacles and opportunity.

It is hard to accept that after all of your hard work and the promise of abundant opportunity at the onset of your studies 4 years ago, that some of you find yourself scrambling for work after a superb education. To put it bluntly the job market sucks. In 1994, after 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 5 years of a residency, and 3 years of cancer surgery training, I found myself in a similar predicament. I had set my heart on an academic career, due in part to some of the wonderful professors who inspired me here at UWGB such as Ken Fleurant and Nikatus Petrakoupoulos. HMOs were all the rage and university medical centers were hurting financially. University medical centers could not support new medical faculty who wanted to pursue research careers. There was only one job that came through for an academic cancer surgeon. I was lucky enough to get that job. But that job turned out to be less than what I had hoped. The support to develop first rate cancer care and research was not there. So what do you do when you find yourself in the wrong job or the right job in the wrong environment?

I really did not know what to do for a few years except to work as hard as I could. To accomplish your goals you must start by looking inward. It is easy to blame others and circumstances for failure. You must first look inward and take responsibility for your success. But sometimes no matter how hard you try you can not succeed in the wrong environment. And so, I decided to start over. I moved to my current job in 2003. My first job prepared me in many ways for my current work which I consider a dream job. My mother always said: ‘every disappointment is a blessing in disguise.”. The battle of swimming against the current was replaced by the peace of being in sync within an organization. There is so much ease in doing my job now that it feels like playing in the NBA after playing basketball in the ghetto with no lights and worn out courts. I find myself in an environment which is pulling in the same direction and where my skills are needed and my objectives are in sync with the organization. No single person can take on cancer. That is also true of anything worth doing. If it is significant, it takes a team. It is important for you to find a team where your role is appreciated and where you can realize your dreams. I feel that I have now entered one of the most productive periods of my life.

My third story is about hope.

When I was training as a surgeon, one saying that was ingrained in all surgeons is “sleep while you can, eat while you can, and don’t mess with the pancreas”. But in my 15-year career as a cancer surgeon I can think of no more rewarding experience than addressing the problem of pancreatic cancer. When you hear ‘pancreatic cancer’ I am sure that one of the things that come to your mind is the grim statistics. Yes, less than 5% of patients can be cured. And yes, the average survival from diagnosis is 6 months. But there are stories of many individuals who have confronted this formidable foe much as Hercules crushed the crab under his foot while fighting hydra. In her book, There’s No Place Like Hope, cancer survivor Vickie Girard describes her thought of cancer as the schoolyard bully. The mere thought of the bully can send people running. But all it takes to diminish the power of the bully is for a couple of people to stand up to him. That is what so many brave people have done with pancreatic cancer. They have stood up to the bully. In my 6 years at Moffitt we have treated hundreds of patients with pancreatic cancer. But the story of one young man who we have been treating for the last 3 years stays with me.

One day the girlfriend of a 23 year old man noticed that he had turned yellow. A CT scan of his abdomen showed that he had a large tumor in the head of his pancreas which was blocking the bile ducts from his liver. When a biopsy revealed that he had pancreatic cancer this was difficult for him or his doctors to believe. He was the wrong age for pancreatic cancer which usually affects older patients. To date I believe he is the youngest patient known to have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he arrived in my clinic he made it clear to me that he planned to fight his disease with all of his might. After we removed his tumor and treated him with chemotherapy and radiation therapy he went on a mission to share his experience with people who were taking the journey after him. He started a blog and reached so many people who were helped by his willingness to share his journey. He was cancer free for about 18 months and then his cancer reappeared in his liver. I remember the agony of giving him the news of his relapse. Spontaneously, he looked me in the eye and told me he was planning to beat his disease. So far, he is doing well. We started him on additional chemotherapy treatments which appear to be containing his disease in the liver.

This young man displays all the characteristics of a survivor: not taking no for an answer, continuing to do things that he loves doing, a strong sense of positivism, an indomitable spirit, self empowerment with information, and hope in the face of hopelessness. I believe that his positive attitude and refusal to accept his prognosis are the keys to his survival.

In the African Culture as in many cultures, stories are told out loud and handed down for centuries from one generation to the next in order to communicate and preserve the significant. For those who hear these stories there is a hope that they will embrace the lessons learned from the stories. Whether you have encountered your own Sr. Kathleen or not, I hope that you will be inspired by these tales of the triumph of the human spirit.

It is heart warming to see all the brilliant minds that are about to go into the world to tackle even much more challenging and important problems than pancreatic cancer. As you face those challenges I will like to leave you with a quote that made an impression on me from Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard. Dr. Goddard is considered the father of modern rocket propulsion. He developed the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion which he published in his classic paper in 1919 titled, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Toward the end of this report Goddard outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon. The press picked up on Goddard’s scientific proposal about a rocket flight to the moon. This led to controversy and ridicule about the feasibility of such a thing. Dr. Goddard died in 1945 before the dawn of the space age. He left us this important quote:
‘It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow’.

Thank you all very much