Posted on October 30, 2017

Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) professor Dr. Arash Rafii recently travelled with seven of his female patients, all in various stages of treatment for breast cancer, on a “group success” mountain climbing trip in the French Alps.

The five-day hike into the Mont Blanc massif last month formed part of Dr. Rafii’s holistic approach to working with cancer patients, helping them “regain a sense of pride and dignity through pulling together and achieving something amazing.” Dr. Rafii, who is Associate Professor of Genetic Medicine in Obstetrics and Gynecology at WCM-Q in Education City, also works as a surgeon at Hamad Medical Corporation, and with cancer patients in France.

“When dealing with cancer, many people feel their bodies have let them down. So, by doing an activity like climbing at altitude, a person can become more able to regain ownership of their bodies and of who they are,” said Dr. Rafii. “I also believe that letting go and reducing the distance between doctor and patient during cancer care is hugely beneficial to the person with the disease. “Through engaging in activities with my patients, I can step out of the classic doctor-patient relationship and share risks with them; patients will tell you stories they might never otherwise tell you, we become friends. This doesn’t prevent me from giving the very best quality of care when it comes to surgery and treatment.”

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According to Dr. Rafii, bringing cancer patients together on activities also helps to tackle the phenomenon of social isolation felt by people living with the disease. “With the Alps climb, we created a group of patients who have now organized themselves and who take care of each other on a personal, medical, and social level. They feel exceptional now; they went to high altitudes and achieved something that most people never will.” Dr. Rafii said Qatar Foundation (QF) and WCM-Q provide an inspiring environment in which to research and grow new ways of thinking about medicine and research.

“QF is a place where researchers and staff can freely engage in out-of-the-box thinking. You can come up with a new idea and it will be taken seriously through open dialogue. Even though these were patients from my practice in France, I had constant support to do this climb from QF and the dean’s office at WCM-Q. “Throughout Education City, there’s a constant drive for new ideas and new challenges. When you think about it, it’s been a huge challenge to set up laboratories and international universities here in the first place, but it’s been done and Education City is working very successfully. I’ve always found that the environment and drive for innovation at QF allows us to constantly push towards addressing new challenges.”

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As an athlete, Dr. Rafii is no stranger to pushing himself to the limit. In 2014, he completed an epic 360km ultra-marathon around Qatar to raise awareness of women’s cancer issues. The week-long run saw him circle the entire peninsula. “It was probably one of the most difficult runs of my life. It took three or four years to get into the right mental frame of mind – it was 360km, I’d done 250km in the mountains before, but that was very different as the landscape varies so much; here it’s so flat it can be very challenging mentally. “The goal of the run was to raise money and awareness on breast cancer. I particularly wanted to highlight how so many women go through cancer and still bear the responsibility of being the center of the family – so my run was a tribute to my patients’ fight against the disease,” he said.

As well as his athletic pursuits and clinical practices in Doha and Europe, Dr. Rafii and his team at WCM-Q are heavily involved in clinical research, investigating how endothelial cells may have the ability to create a ‘bridge’ between cardiac cells, ensuring they act as one and as they would in the human heart. “If true, the technique could one day be used to help heal cardiac infractions or support people with a heartbeat too weak due to degenerative heart disease such as in ischemic disease or diabetes,” said Dr. Rafii, whose work at WCM-Q is funded by Qatar National Research Fund, part of Qatar Foundation Research and Development.