Monday, 28 September 2015

The importance of distractions (Michael Munforte)

Shiny things
Photo by Ken Douglas (https://www.flickr.com/photos/good_day)
To all those students battling a serious illness or a significant hardship, this post's for you!

When I was only 6 months old, I was diagnosed with cancer: a rhabdomyosarcoma (a malignant muscle tumour).

Subject to surgery and chemotherapy, the tumour was gone and all was well. Until the cancer returned. Following an experimentally high dose of chemotherapy (my parents thought they’d lose me to the chemo at one point), the tumour was once again gone.

Unrelenting, it returned for a third time. A third round of chemo seemed unreasonable and so radiotherapy was attempted. It had no effect and so the decision to amputate my right arm was made. I was only a month away from my eighth birthday at the time. However, to this day, I have remained free from this tumour, so it was ultimately worth the sacrifice.


High school is daunting for any child, and especially so when you only have one hand. Fortunately, I was surrounded by good friends and teachers, and I began to develop a keen interest in science, having already found a knack for mathematics through primary school.

Half way through Year 7, a routine dental x-ray revealed something no one was expecting: I had cancer again. This time it was a bone tumour in my jaw. While the treatment was successful, an oversight in monitoring resulted in irreversible damage to my heart, leaving me with cardiomyopathy.

To further complicate matters, my spine had developed a significant curve (known as scoliosis) during this time, which could not be treated with back braces as a result of the infuser ports used in chemotherapy at the time. It wasn’t until a few years later that I underwent spinal fusion surgery to correct this, which has left me with two metal rods attached to my spine and an inability to bend or twist my torso.

Despite all these challenges, I continued studying full-time and achieved an ATAR score of 99, the second highest at my school.

I was accepted into La Trobe University’s Bachelor of Science (Honours)/Masters of Nanotechnology double degree, and pursued my love of science and mathematics at a university level. I've maintained an A-grade average throughout my degree, and I'm now in my final year.

At the moment, I'm writing a thesis on the thermal degradation of organic-based solar cells in the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS).

Ever since I lost my arm, people have always asked “why don’t you get a prosthesis?”, and I would always reply, “I don’t want one until I can build one that I’m satisfied with.” It has fuelled my desire to work in bionics, and it would be a dream come true if I could undertake a PhD in this field.

People often ask how I have managed to maintain my studies while undergoing treatment for cancer. They tell me that if they were in the same position they would not have had the motivation to continue.

My motivation to continue studying came from the distraction it provided. You don’t have time to worry about being sick if you’re busy learning new things!

Based on my experiences, I'd offer the following advice to students battling serious illness:
  1. Identify a support network. Surround yourself with people that you love. There is no way I would be where I am today if not for the love and support of my family and friends. If you find yourself struggling with your work load, it helps to talk to someone about it (even if they can’t actually help).
  2. Ask for help. There are services in place at all levels of education to help those going through a serious illness or hardship in their life. These services cater to your situation and you should not hesitate to seek them out. La Trobe’s equity and diversity program was a great help to me, helping take some of the stress from assignments and even exams by modifying conditions to better suit my situation.
  3. Make time for hobbies. Find something that you can immerse yourself in. For me, this was video games. Delving into a world outside of reality gave me an opportunity to take my mind off of things that were happening, which meant that I could better focus on studying afterwards.
  4. Don’t give up. This may sound generic or cringe-worthy, but it's important. Despite having cancer four times, not once did I ever think I wouldn’t get through it. This mindset was very important for keeping a level head. If you let yourself fall into despair, it will be difficult to study effectively.
I have been called amazing and inspirational, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t want to be defined by my medical history, but by my achievements.

I won't allow any illness, no matter how serious, to stand in my way.

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Michael Munforte is in his final year of a Bachelor of Science (Hons) / Masters of Nanotechnology double degree at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS). 

He is currently undertaking a Master's thesis focused on understanding the degradation of organic photovoltaic devices, so that renewable energy technology can be improved. 

Michael spends most of his time studying, but relaxes by playing video games. 
He has also been involved with fundraising events for cancer research. 
Michael can be contacted via email

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