Thank you Afaf for taking the time to chat with us today, whereabouts are you located?
In glorious Newcastle! I’ve been lucky to have travelled to many parts of the world, with my family and with my previous job (cancer researcher), and I truly believe Newcastle is such a special place to live. It’s a bonus that I live 5 mins walk down the road from the beach too.
Cancer researcher? Can you tell me more about this?
I was the director of a psycho-oncology research centre, first at University of Newcastle for 20 years, then at Uni of NSW for 12 years – supervising a team of staff and PhD and Master’s students. Psycho-oncology research isn’t about treating cancer; it’s about helping people affected by cancer to cope better with it and have the best quality of life they possibly can. For many patients and their caregivers, their anxiety is often undetected, or it’s detected late when they’re at crisis stage, thereby needing far more intensive therapy. So, much of my work was about understanding the burden of cancer for people and then developing ways for health providers and cancer services to routinely assess patients’ wellbeing and symptoms, to ensure early detection and timely care. Our research also focused specifically on people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who experience poorer outcomes, to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
This sounds like really important work, what type of cancer did you specialise in?
Our research included people affected by all types of cancers. As well as doing and supervising the research, an important part of my role was writing grants to get sufficient funding to support the research, and communicating the results where they can make a difference – academic journals, conferences, consumer forums, national committees etc.
This is absolutely incredible; can you tell me some of your greatest achievements in this field?
In 2019, I received the Order of Australia (AM), awarded for “significant service to medicine, and to medical education, in the field of cancer control and psycho-oncology”. For a girl who came to Australia at the age of 9 with only a few words of English, I could not have been any prouder!
My proudest achievements are about mentoring staff to become independent researchers and also seeing our research have an impact on cancer practice and policy. That’s not an easy feat, with research usually taking about 17 years to start having an impact on practice. One of our biggest bodies of work, which spanned about 15 years, was developing an eHealth platform for patients to routinely report on their wellbeing, at the clinic or from home, with immediate feedback of their issues of concern to their care team. This system, PROMPT-Care, received several health services awards and has been implemented as routine care in cancer services in NSW. I’m not sure I could have happily retired before this happened, so our whole team and clinicians who worked with us were very satisfied with that major achievement!
Wow, so this would’ve been quite the career to retire from – why did you become a celebrant?
My best friend’s son and daughter (whom I’ve known since birth) were both getting married in 2019 and were talking about how lovely it would be if I was their celebrant. I was of course very flattered but had absolutely no idea what this meant! I looked into it and decided it would be worth the investment (time and money) and would be a great retirement plan. This was January 2019 and I thought – ‘okay I have a PhD, surely, I can knock off an online course in a month!’ I HAD NO IDEA! With working as well, it took me about 8 months to complete the course. I didn’t get registered in time for Chelsea’s wedding in April, but I got to marry Brody in November 2019; and since then, I’ve married his sibling Jordan, and performed two naming days for Chelsea’s kids. I’m kind of the Nisbet family celebrant.
What do you love most about being a celebrant?
I’m very maternal in my nature, so I have a habit of taking couples under my wing and just doing whatever I can to make that part of their journey as fun, organised and special as possible. I love turning their ‘couples quiz’ answers into a love story that has all the feels!
Is celebranting your full-time gig?
When I started at the end of 2019, I was still working as an academic at UNSW (Sydney), so I only took on a few ceremonies, largely referrals from other celebrants. I formally retired from my academic job at the end of 2021, though I still supervise a few students. Celebranting is a part time gig for me, as I’m also trying to enjoy this concept of “retirement”.
How long have you been a member of TCS?
Literally since I got registered at the end of 2019. Another celebrant was at the first wedding I did, and she advised me to join an association and recommended TCS as a modern, fun and very supportive one. All true and the best advice ever.
What do you do when you aren’t celebranting?
I love walking every morning with hubby, seeing my family and friends, I do reformer pilates a couple of times a week, cooking – especially for family gatherings (usually 12 of us, or 26+ if it’s Christmas), knitting, watching K-dramas on Netlfix. We’re also finally getting back into travelling – Korea with hubby, then Egypt with 10 of my family this year.
How long have you been married?
Let’s just say, it took me more than one go to get it right. I have 2 gorgeous boys though and I’ve finally found the one, so no regrets. Brett and I have been together 10 years, married 9 years. That’s my record!
How did you meet your hubby?
Brett and I went to Years 11 & 12 together when the school became co-ed. We were the first girls at the school. We weren’t friends at school but there’s a few photos of us sitting next to each other on the school stage as prefects! Quite cute really. Fast forward about 30 years and we happened to be at the same pub for dinner with separate school friends, so we ended up all sitting together. We chatted, compared photos of our matching Schnauzers and agreed to catch up again by email/phone (he lived 4 hours away and was just visiting his mum in Newcastle). I had zero plans to be in a relationship, let alone marry again, but like they say – never say never!
You have 2 boys?
Oh yes! I love my family! I had my boys, Oscar and Toby, as an older mum and they are, without doubt, my greatest joy! I’m also very lucky to have one of those close-knit families where we all love spending time together. This year will be the 25th anniversary of our annual family holiday at the same house in Corlette (Port Stephens) – all 12 of us (including my lot, mum, brothers, nieces & nephews).
What is your best ceremony moment?
The 5-year-old daughter of a couple I was marrying doing the Acknowledgement of Country, repeating a few words at a time after me – it was gorgeous and pretty memorable. My most recent special moment though was the feedback the photographer from my last wedding sent me the day after. He said “when you were telling the story of how they met, I was behind the lens ‘Don’t cry! Don’t cry!’ You were fucking brilliant. You made me cry!”.
What is your worst ceremony moment?
Thankfully, I haven’t had any really horrible experiences (yet, touch wood). Probably the worst was the absolute downpour mid-ceremony, with no escape and a mad scramble for umbrellas for the bride and groom. I literally looked like a drowned rat in ALL the post-ceremony photos. Not fun!
What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first began?
How to streamline my writing – thanks to Ben Ager for some tips on that front! I still take way too long writing the personal story – I think my academic background makes me keep editing until everything is ‘perfect’ Still a work in progress!
Afaf, thank you so much for sharing your story, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two particularly about cancer research. I think many of us aspire to be like you in our retirement.
If you’d love to follow Afaf’s celebrant journey you can follow her on Instagram at Afafgirgiscelebrant