She Was Far Too Young To Die: Maryam Mirzakhani

Patient Expert

Another woman died of breast cancer this week.

Just 40 years old, Maryam Mirzakhani was initially diagnosed four years ago. The cancer became metastatic, spreading to her bones, and she passed away July 15, 2017.

Over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer in America this year. Each one is special to someone: a child, a spouse, a mother, or a sister. Most are mourned; some by few, others by countless friends and colleagues and loved ones.

Mirzakhani rests in the latter category. People all over the world have been shattered by her death, expressing their grief in official statements and via social media.

Because Mirzakhani, in a life cut far too short, was a celebrity: not in sports, film, or fashion, but in the rarefied world of theoretical mathematics.

For those who gladly left math behind after high school, understand that Mirzakhani didn’t truck with numbers: her field was the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces. Simply put — very simply put — Mirzakhani studied curved surfaces (think balloons) and trajectories (think billiards).

Her work was so astonishingly brilliant that three years ago, in 2014, she became the first woman ever to win the Fields Medal, the math community’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Recovering from her first bout of chemo when she learned of the award, she worried she wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremonies. But, like so many breast cancer survivors, she powered past chemo’s side effects and traveled to Seoul, South Korea to receive her medal — awarded for “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.”

I can’t pretend to understand what Mirzakhani did on a professional level: what she studied (and taught as a Stanford professor), the dreams she had for future work. Yet I feel I understand her journey as a woman: the daughter of Iranian parents, far from home in a graduate program at Harvard. A young wife and mother balancing family and job in California.

A breast cancer survivor. And then its victim.

So I join the thousands of people who feel sorrow at Mirzakhani’s death. I deeply regret the loss of future contributions she would doubtless have made to the world of theoretical mathematics; you don’t have to understand genius to mourn its passing, especially when a brilliant light is extinguished far too soon.

But I feel even sadder about the manner of Mirzakhani’s passing: breast cancer. Fewer than 5 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under age 40: why did she have to be one of them? Only about 17 percent of breast cancer survivors die from the disease. Why did that data set have to include Mirzakhani?

None of us survivors want to draw the short straw. At some point, Mirzakhani realized that’s exactly what she’d done.

Yet she continued to move forward with her life — her work, her family, cancer treatment — demonstrating the indomitable spirit of breast cancer survivors right up to the end.

For this, I bear witness to this remarkable woman today.

Mirzakhani leaves her husband, Stanford computer science professor Jan Vondrak, and a 6-year-old daughter, Anahita.