In April 2000 I saw, my now, no longer gynaecologist, with a really sore and lumpy breast. He examined me, told me that all women my age (33 years) had lumpy breasts. In December 2000 my left nipple was totally inverted. My neighbour, who is a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and who played and continues to play such a vital role in my journey, suggested I see a breast surgeon at Constantiaberg. I think at this stage I already knew that something was horribly wrong, and then again part of me kept saying it is nothing. I was fit and was involved in masters swimming. I did have a stressful job – teaching high school in Cape Town. The doctor did a biopsy and simply by feeling and examining me said he was convinced it was cancer. My mom waited outside and when I came out I said to her ‘okay let’s go home I have breast cancer’. She looked as though I had taken all the air out of her. The next three days my family kept me busy – just so that I could not think about the possible results – I played tennis, golf, ran, went to gym and went shopping. The doctor then phoned and said the results had come back and that it was not cancer. I breathed a sigh of relief, but the doctor went on to say he was not happy as he knew it was cancer. I was like, ‘hello can’t we just believe the pathologists!!’ My doctor then booked a procedure where they take cross sections of the tumour – almost like an apple corer. This was rather sore and that afternoon while I was relaxing the phone rang and my doctor confirmed that I had breast cancer. Perhaps all my competitive years of swimming and my competitive nature kicked in – I hate to lose and this was a race I had to win.
My doctor said he would do a mastectomy in the new year. I had visions of this cancer running amok in my breast and I thought to myself ‘oh no I would like to have it NOW’. Two days later on 20 December I was booked in and had my mastectomy. My left breast was removed. I spent 5 days in hospital and was released on 25 December. The word ‘cancer’ holds so many fears and negative connotations and many people think of death the minute they hear the word cancer. My breast surgeon who saved my life, said he had seen people with my kind of breast cancer live and seen some die and I needed to decide what I was going to do. I stood up and told him in certain terms that I am far too young to die and I am choosing to live.
I started my chemo in January. I had to have 6 sessions of chemo every 3 weeks. I felt the first session was the worst as I did not know what to expect. How would I feel, would I vomit in the toilet? Looking back I think I had a relatively easy ride. I was really lucky to have a term’s leave and thus had no stress or worries. After my first session of chemo I joined the Sports Science Institute, a gym in Cape Town - I was determined to keep fit and positive. I also had a little ritual, before each session I would go for a run and that evening after chemo I would do the same. I also knew that for approximately two or three days afterwards I would not feel great and would not feel like doing anything.
I remember in a moment of frustration saying to my dear mom that I was supposed to bury her and not vice versa. She very quietly and confidently said ‘you will still bury me’. She went with me for my chemo, she started going to gym to be with me and she drove around trying to find papaya for me when I felt like nothing tasted good. She hugged and loved me when I felt bad and had my moments of despair. Her positivity rubbed off on me. She has played a key role as one of my major care givers and I have realised what a strong women she is and how much I love her.
When I lost my hair I felt so vulnerable. This prompted me to go for counseling. After four sessionsI felt that I was fine and able to take on life again in my multitude of beanies and bandanas.
The chemo room became a meeting place of friends - you meet the same people, see some really sick people and you chat to all. I celebrated the end of chemo and was given a certificate by the oncology nurses. I then started 25 sessions of radiation. Basically one is marked with permanent dots as to where the radiation is aimed. Each radiation session lasts approximately 15 minutes. I am left handed and my left side ultimately ended up being badly burnt. I had to write on the board with my right hand.
After a year I decided to have reconstruction. I had a TRAMFLAP operation. Basically the fat of one’s tummy is used to make a breast. It is a huge operation and basically one comes out with a tummy tuck (bonus) and a brand new breast.
In 2003 I was devastated when another tumour – a very tiny one - was picked up. I was told it was so tiny that a lumpectomy would be necessary and no chemo or radiation was needed. I knew that I would worry all the time that the cancer would come back and I chose to have another mastectomy. I had immediate reconstruction. I wonder how many people can say they have part of their tummy as one breast and a silicone implant as their other breast!
Support group meetings have played an important role in my survival. It has been 10 years since my first diagnosis and I have done so much. I recently met Lance Armstrong!! I have shown people that there is life after cancer. I have touched and inspired so many people and that in itself is an honour. I have been blessed in so many ways. Having my mom, my sister and her family and my neighbour – love and support me during this journey, has made it so much easier for me. I have also found that my faith in God has kept me going and I know that He has a plan for my life. A good sense of humour is also essential. I am also more in charge of my body and no longer simply accept what doctors say. I belong to an amazing group of ladies – the AmaBele (Xhosa for breast) Belles (www.amabelebelles.co.za ). We are a group of breast cancer survivors who do dragon boating and we want to show everyone that there is life after breast cancer. Life is good!!
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