‘Ottawa’ ‘She Lived Her Life to the Fullest’: Iranian Woman who Fought Red Tape to Remain in Canada Dies of Cancer
Fatemeh Kamkar, the Iranian woman who battled both cancer and bureaucratic red tape while earning her PhD in cellular and molecular medicine at the University of Ottawa, has died.
The doctorate she earned last summer, said friend and former colleague Sarah Hewitt, was “the biggest testimony of her infinite resilience and determination.
“To earn your PhD, you have so much to do, and it’s so hard, and you don’t think you’re going to get through it, but you do. But I couldn’t imagine doing the PhD on top of battling cancer, and on top of fighting to stay in Canada. There were so many battles for her to get her PhD, and she was still able to do it.”
Kamkar died on July 26, eight months after learning that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten three years earlier had metastasized to her brain. Her death also came one day before a research paper she had co-authored on stem cells had been accepted for publication.
She was 42.
She had time for everyone, says Hewitt. “She was very thoughtful, and you felt very special because of the attention she gave you. You’d think, ‘How can she give so much to so many people?’ But she was able to.”
“She was full of energy and really happy,” adds the youngest of Kamkar’s two sisters, Lily. “She really wanted to stay alive, to travel and see more of the world.
“She really wanted to have a daughter. My sister has a daughter and I have a son, and she really, really loved my niece a lot; she was like a daughter to her. When she was going through chemotherapy, she was worried that she might not be able, later on, to have kids.”
Lily adds that even after becoming bedridden in January, Kamkar had remained positive, optimistic that, as she had done in the past, she would weather this latest setback.
“Even when she could hardly move, she would talk about how it was important to her to get better and have a job and do something for society.
“She was happy and positive, and did a great job fighting this disease. Sometimes I think that I cannot do it the way that she did. She was always saying, ‘I will get better.’”
Kamkar’s health and residency issues first came to light in Postmedia in December 2011. She had arrived in Canada six years earlier, in 2005, from Iran, with hopes of following in her younger sister Maryam’s footsteps and becoming a medical researcher.
She had applied for a permanent resident visa at around the same time Maryam came to Canada in 2003, and had passed a criminal-background check in 2006 and her immigration department medical exam in 2007.
But her file had still not been processed by late 2009, when immigration officials, citing the two years that had passed since her last medical, asked her to undergo another. Only weeks earlier, Kamkar had been diagnosed with cancer in her left breast, a condition she freely admitted at her second examination.
“It was so early and so small,” says sister Maryam, “that they never would have known if she hadn’t brought it up.”
Ten months later, Kamkar was told that her condition might prevent her from being allowed to stay in Canada after her studies were complete. In April 2010, an immigration officer confirmed this in a letter: “You are a person whose health condition, breast cancer, might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health services. As a result, you are inadmissible to Canada on health grounds.
“Thank you,” the letter continued, “for the interest you have shown in Canada.”
An ensuing attempt to appeal the decision through the Federal Court of Canada failed when she was denied a hearing, despite her willingness to sign an agreement that would have made her responsible for any health-care costs arising from her breast cancer.
Two weeks after her plight was made public, then-citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney intervened, offering her a temporary work permit. The permit would have enabled her to re-apply for a permanent visa in three years’ time, but there was a catch: To qualify, she would still have to have cancer in three years.
Convinced she would beat her disease, Kamkar declined the permit. “It is hard for me to wish myself sickness,” she said. In the meantime, she paid her medical costs, and her tuition, herself.
She began treatment in December, and in October 2012, her doctor told her it had succeeded. The tumour in her breast had disappeared, leaving her just her thesis to complete and her immigration woes to solve. Elated by the progress of her health, she wrote to Postmedia: “If things did not work for my immigration, the kind support from many people brought hope to my heart, and today I am healthy again.”
In 2013, Kamkar was forced to reconsider her rejection of a temporary work permit. She’d extended her international student visa so she could complete her studies, but was told she wouldn’t be able to further extend it. The only way she could stay in Canada was to accept the temporary permit, which would allow her to remain until the end of August 2016, when she could re-apply for a visa.
“She lived her life to the fullest,” says Maryam, “but this immigration issue held her back. It put so much stress on her. I wouldn’t wish what she went through on anyone else.”
Her cancer-free diagnosis was short-lived, and likely inaccurate. Lily believes the tests that determined the tumour had disappeared failed to look beyond its initial site. “It had probably already metastasized, and they didn’t get it in time,” she says. “They didn’t scan her entire body, unfortunately.”
About a year after her cancer-free prognosis, X-rays of a pathological bone fracture she’d suffered in her arm confirmed that her breast cancer cells had metastasized. Three years of chemotherapy followed, and last November, cancer was discovered in her brain.
“She was complaining about back pain,” recalls Maryam, “and was told that everybody complains about back pain. They’d scanned everywhere but her head, and that’s one of the first spots that breast cancer travels to. Lymph nodes, bone and brain. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it had gone to the brain when we saw the symptoms. It was a textbook case.”
Despite being told the condition was inoperable, Lily says her sister remained optimistic.
“She tried to stay very active, working on this paper that she wanted to see published. She tried to be positive, always saying she would get better and then she would go on trips, to see all over the world, and see her aunt and uncle back in Iran. She really missed them.”
“I’m sure she’s in a better place,” adds Maryam, “but I hate this to happen to any other person. She could have focused on her health, but this immigration thing was always a burden. Always, always. It was like a nightmare.”
Hewitt, meanwhile, has created a GoFundMe page to help offset the substantial medical and funeral expenses incurred by Kamkar. Donations can be made at https://www.gofundme.com/2gu96f9s. If more than the goal of $10,000 is reached, Hewitt says, the remainder will be used to fund a scholarship at the University of Ottawa for an international student.