Dr Helen Kavnoudias, Clinical Trial Specialist at the Alfred, addressed 200 women at the Merrimu Reception Hall at the International Women’s Day charity luncheon organised by the Lemnian Community of Victoria’s Ladies Committee.
Her moving speech struck a chord with women present who could relate to her as Greeks and fasdgfas
Below is a large excerpt of what she had to say:
A bit about my work. I studied Medical Science here in Melbourne and after that, one of the highlights of my academic life was being awarded a Rotary Foundation and then a University Scholarship to pursue post-graduate study overseas. I went to the UK, to St Andrews University and I did my doctorate on Leukaemia research.
Leukaemia is a cancer of blood cells. What happens is the production of the blood cells goes into overdrive, so too many cells are produced and these clog up the blood vessels and all the body organs. What we were looking at was using retinoids, a derivative of Vitamin A, to push the cells along in their development cycle and to stop the overproduction.
This was actually found to work for one particular type of leukaemia, there are several types of leukaemias and each one reponds to different treatment. While we were still experimenting with mouse models in the laboratory, a Chinese group just went ahead and used retinoids clinically and found that it worked in patients with that particular leukaemia. So, it was incorporated into clinical practice very quickly. Retinoids have gone on to be used more widely and for other things for example even in some face creams. I did this work back in the late 80’s so 30 years ago. I am constantly wondering where the time goes.
More recently, over the last ten years I have been working on a technology called Nanoknife.
This technology, like a lot of good science, was discovered accidentally. Tumours are treated directly and without any side effects by using electrode needles that are placed into the tumour; then an electrical current is passed between the needles which disrupts the membrane of the tumour cells so they are killed off: but it does not destroy any of the surrounding tissue or vital structures near the tumour. The advantage of this technology is that it can be used for tumours that were previously deemed as inoperable – that is it would have been too dangerous for a surgeon to cut out. So, patients who previously did not have a treatment option now have one.
We now have excellent long term data showing that this technology works well for certain liver and kidney tumours, 89 per cent success rate to over 5 years. I presented this work at an Asia Pacific conference recently, at the end of February, and it won best paper. It was just a little bit of recognition, but it justified the 10-year effort and gives us momentum and potential funding opportunities to continue.
But what was it that inspired and influenced the choices I have made.
My Mum and her mum, my grandmother, influenced me the most but also, I want to mention the terrific men in my life, my dad, uncles, and husband that have supported me tremendously. My paternal grandmother died when my father was only one, so we did not get to know her.
From what I hear about her I know she would have also been an inspiration to us.
A little bit about my Mum, (Athanasia Kavnoudia nee Pastri) – When she finished primary school, it was just a couple of years after WW2, her teacher went to see my grandmother and said, Eleni, your oldest daughter is getting married, the second one is learning to be a seamstress – give Athanasia a chance, send her to high school. My mum couldn’t believe it, she was so happy, she wanted to go.
So, full of hope, she took the morning bus from her villiage Repanidi to the island capital, Mirina, but when she arrived to enrol they told her she had to pay 500 drachma. Well, she didn’t have 500 drachma, It was a lot of money in the 1940s. she had lost her father and the family had lost all their money during the depression and the war – all they had was just enough land to farm and live off. Instead of getting educated, she spent her teenage years and early adult life working the fields.
I heard a story last year in Lemno that really affected me, My grandmother was unable to wake her up for two whole days because she was so exhausted from ploughing their fields. A young girl ploughing. This is a common post war story for many Lemnians, men and women, they worked very hard for very little gain. So, Mum valued education very much – she wanted every child to have the opportunity of a good education. She bought me books to read, I had a huge collection of wonderful Greek paramithakia (short stories) that she used to buy for me from Lonsdale street. She hoped I would go to University and I was not going to let her down. And also I was a bit nerdy anyway, so we were a pretty good fit. There was no pressure.The other thing about mum was that she could ‘sus’ out a mile away, if anyone needed help.
Her limited English meant that she could not always help directly so as soon as I could speak English I became the family, friends and neighbours interpreter for all appointments and correspondence. Bless her, I learnt a lot about life from those encounters from a very early age. What became apparent to me was that the most critical aspect of peoples’ lives was their health. Medical research was what I was going to do.
…her mantra to me was to be independent, not to rely on my father or my husband but to be able to stand on my own two feet. Or alternatively and jokingly, as my Irish friend would say, A man is not a plan.
Now, a little bit about the other Inspirationalist – giagia (Eleni Pastri nee Plafadeli). Around the time of the first world war when Giagia was only 14 she lost her two older brothers and her parents. She brought up her two younger brothers who were nine and seven. Then, during the Second World War she lost my grandfather and had to bring up her four children alone. Giagia came out to Australia in 1964 so she was very much a part of my life – her mantra to me was to be independent, not to rely on my father or my husband but to be able to stand on my own two feet. Or alternatively and jokingly, as my Irish friend would say, A man is not a plan.
But more seriously, Giagia was a true feminist, she knew this was a woman’s as much as a man’s world. So thank-you Giagia for moulding me into a bit of a workaholic. I cannot imagine life without having some interesting work to do.
To draw out a little bit more Lemnian history – when I told my family that I wanted to go overseas to study: Dad was apprehensive, Mum looked a bit worried but elated and Giagia, she wasn’t even impressed. She said, that even in her day she had family, cousins, who had gone to Europe to study, one studied architecture in Germany and another music in Paris. This is an aspect of pre-war Lemnian history I knew nothing about but it smoothed my way to fulfilling my dream of further study, working in medical research and seeing the world.
Like most women, have I had a good work-life balance? Not quite. I had just enough time to constantly hurry, but not rush, my girls as they were growing up; and I did not leave enough time to regularly see friends and extended family, people that I care about.
Am I underpaid and work more hrs than I’m paid for? Yes, but it is the trade-off I accepted for having flexibility in my work hours.
Have I been promoted appropriately? Probably not. But, I chose to take the career back seat in our family, to make sure I had time to be with my daughters. And, to be fair my current job was actually advertised by a male Head of Department as a ‘Mum Hours, 9-3 position, and with extra time off for school holidays; a working mum’s dream.
As women our responsibility is to nurture and love our families.
We have a lot to offer in the workplace and to the community and we do balance it all. Our mothers did, with far greater challenges than our own. They have taught us to live with dignity and to respect others, they taught that to their boys and girls. Gender disparity is still huge internationally and it has gone backwards, more needs to be done – small things, like employers adjusting work hours and significant adjustments and acceptance that women should have equal opportunity to choose what they want to do. Within our community I feel we have all the right elements in place and we are respected. Seeing all of you here today confirms that we have been shown, and know how, to live a fortunate and fulfilled life.For the next IWD event I hope we can hear from our younger generation and to hear about their challenges, which will be different to ours, and about their achievements.It’s been a pleasure to share my story with you. Thank-you.
* Written and presented by Helen Kavnoudias on 18 March 2019 at the First Lemnian Community of Victoria, International Women’s Day Luncheon.