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In support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we chat to four survivors

A breast cancer diagnosis can be the end of life or life as you know it. These four phenomenal women share their stories hoping to affirm fellow survivors are seen, and inspire women who’re going through it, those who’ve lost loved ones or have yet to walk this painful path.

Candice King

Courage is contagious, and I believe that when we share our stories, we permit others to be courageous in their experiences and stories. I’m a breast cancer survivor in the clear for seven years, and I’m grateful to have another chance at life.

I often say the process of getting to where I am now wasn’t linear. I carry the wounds and scars of my experience with pride as I fought it despite my fear.

I received my diagnosis in December 2014, but my cancer story doesn’t begin there. At the beginning of that year, my mom had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. We had no idea what the year was going to hold, and supporting someone going through the end-of-life stages of cancer is pretty heart-wrenching. Little did I know whilst caring for my mom, I was walking around with a 5cm tumour in my left breast. No, I hadn’t performed a self-examination of my breasts. And no, I hadn’t felt a lump. Looking back, there were no tell-tale signs I had cancer.

My gynae found the lump during a physical examination, but I was 33, so he wasn’t overly concerned, advising me to have it checked out if I wasn’t happy. I wanted a mammogram, but because I was under 40 and had no family history of breast cancer, doctors sent me for an ultrasound.

My mom passed away three weeks before my diagnosis, so I was still grieving when I received the news. I spent most of 2015 going through chemo, 16 rounds in total, five weeks of daily radiation and breast-conserving surgery. My body responded very well to the chemo, and my tumour shrunk to a centimetre, so I was able to have a lumpectomy. That treatment was gruelling. I lost all my hair and rocked a bald head for many months. Losing your hair is an emotional experience. My family and I tried to make light of those ‘big’ moments. The day my hair started falling out, we put on my favourite track at the time, ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten, got some hair clippers, and videoed the event. When I could shower after radiation, we put music on, laughed and filmed a mini vlog. We needed to find humour in those otherwise frightening experiences.

Surprisingly, I struggled with the period after treatment more. My doctors told me it was safe to start living life again, but I’d changed. I had to re-discover myself and find my place in the world and self-confidence, only this time with nobody’s help but my own.

I often relate my experience to that of a lotus flower. Through adversity, I blossomed and grew into the person I am today. I’m living my purpose and passion for guiding women to re-discover who they are so they can live authentically.

Sadieka Hoosain

My journey with Breast cancer began as most do, with the discovery of a lump. I found something that didn’t feel right whilst showering. So, I had a mammogram and ultrasound, which confirmed it was a lump. The technicians didn’t seem concerned. My GP advised me to go for a biopsy. At no point was I worried. I had no history of breast cancer in my family, and I was still young. There was little risk of it being cancer. I had a biopsy on a Friday afternoon, and doctors told me I’d receive the results by Monday.

The biopsy was only a slight niggle at the back of my mind over the weekend. Monday came and went, and I thought no news was good news. But on Tuesday, 25 August, my GP called me. “Sadieka, come and see me today, and bring Imraan [my husband] with you!” My heart sank. It had to be bad news. “You have Cancer!” she said. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I could see her talking but couldn’t comprehend anything she was saying. Luckily, Imraan was with me and he was in a better state than me to discuss what’d happen next.

My life became a whirlwind of appointments, scans, tests, blood tests, more tests, more scans. I was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma in 2015 – at the age of 36. I was overwhelmed by all the information but needed to take action, to have a bilateral mastectomy as I had three young girls to think about, and I didn’t want to go through that again.

I had my double-mastectomy in September 2015, three days after my 37th birthday. The surgery was routine with no complications. I shared my room with two other women, also recently diagnosed. We commiserated with each other and spoke about our new journey with our unexpected visitor.

It was an adjustment getting used to my new body. My recovery was painful and uncomfortable, especially with two protruding drains. Despite the pain, discomfort and anguish, I fondly remember the 11 days I spent in one of the surgical wards at Life Kingsbury Hospital. The nursing staff and doctors were exceptional and made my terrible ordeal so much easier to get through.

I started chemotherapy two months after surgery. Tuesday was my chemo day at Vincent Pallotti Oncology. I’d have a check-up with my oncologist and then spend the rest of Tuesday in my favourite La-Z-Boy getting the healing juice. I’d spend the rest of the week recovering and coping with the side effects of my chemo. This routine continued for the better part of six months. I lost my appetite, was always fatigued and nauseous, had body aches and lost my hair. I’d find clumps of my hair in the shower, in my bed, everywhere! It was physical proof of the battle raging inside my body. Some days, it was challenging to get out of bed, but luckily, my husband and family were there to help. My husband accompanied me to each chemo appointment to hold my hand – and my hair back when I had to stick my head over the toilet to throw up. I finished chemo in April 2016. It had taken my every ounce of strength and prayer to get through it.

Next on my treatment plan was radiation. Seeing the Novalis Tx machine, which looked like something out of a spaceship, was daunting. For 25 consecutive days, I had to visit the radiation department for treatment. It took me lots of willpower to lie still whilst the machine rotated around me with its beams killing the remaining cancer cells.

Thankfully, radiation was the easiest part of my journey. I only struggled with tender skin and fatigue. The last part of my treatment plan was to take Tamoxifen for 10 years to reduce the risk of recurrence. And, yes, the rumours about this drug are true. Adjusting to it was horrendous. I experienced hot flushes, body aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and insomnia. Some days, I wondered if feeling crap all the time was worth it! Six years later, I’ve learnt to live with it. Some of its effects have dissipated, and others I’ve gotten used to. I haven’t slept an entire night since 2015!

Thanks to God, my husband, family, friends and colleagues who were my lifeline during my ordeal. My hubby was my rock! I wouldn’t have stayed strong-willed with a positive outlook were it not for him.

Cancer has taught me:

•I’m stronger than I thought I was.

• Physical appearance isn’t everything. You’re not your hair or your boobs!

• I have an amazing support system.

• Appreciate life more.

• Don’t sweat the small stuff.

• Don’t put things off. You never know what tomorrow might bring.

• Stay positive, but cry and scream if you need to.

• Find one person who’s been through it and talk to them.

• Talk about your fears. The fear of recurrence is real and I struggle with it daily.

• Thank the Almighty for your blessings.

• Treasure your kids!

• As women, we put our needs last. Stop! Self-care is important. Make those appointments, go for check-ups and perform regular breast exams.

Eldari Visser

To help you understand my journey through breast cancer and the battlefield in my mind, let me explain it from my diagnosis to where I am today. “This is strawberry-dipped-in-chocolate cancer. You’re very lucky,” my surgeon said.

My medical aid offers women a free screening every October, which I always considered myself too busy to attend. An opportunity came up on the very last day, and I ran into the nearest radiologists. Three hours later my tests were complete and I had two weeks to wait for the results.

My life became movie-like. A small voice in my head asked, do you expect a positive result? Yes. I’d seen the signs but chosen to ignore them. Had I seen it, or was it just my imagination? My breast cancer surgeon is an amazing doctor. She explained all my options, from which I opted for a double-mastectomy.

I’m not going to talk about the pain I experienced during the time. Much has already been written about that, and it isn’t what my story is about. I want to help others understand something about their choices, mind and life after having this operation and how to understand the voices in your head.

We all brace ourselves for cancer operations and their subsequent treatments. We don’t understand that we need to brace ourselves for side effects. Dr Google can’t be trusted, and friends or family all have different experiences or views. Don’t compare; be aware.

After a successful but very painful operation, I felt optimistic. Ready to take life on. Life was still sort of the same. A positive mindset for a cancer fighter is a must. It gives you hope.

The oncologist explained that my particular breast cancer has two enemies: progesterone and estrogen hormones. So, I can’t take anything that mimics these hormones in my body.

I was neither 50 years old nor menopausal. But due to my family history, I decided against chemotherapy. I knew the road was ghastly. I started to ask questions.

I researched alternatives, and my oncologist suggested a procedure called Oncotyping. My medical plan paid for this test, which involves studying a tumour and creating a risk profile. The waiting list was six weeks, during which time the voices in my head grew louder. My mind was in overdrive considering my survival and/or my own death.

The report came back, and thankfully my risk was low, meaning I wouldn’t needchemotherapy, only a strict treatment regime for the next five to 10 years. I knew nothing about the medicine, just that it’s a far better option than chemotherapy. This medicine turned out to be the kicker, my best buddy and worst enemy. One day you feel like a warrior, the next, you’re really down.I felt utterly betrayed by my body, and my outlook on life slowly changed.

I was always sick and anxious. The freight train of early menopause hit, and it continues to be my biggest battle.

It affects your memory, moods and view of the world. At first, I had plenty of support, and then people moved on. Life moves on. I thought people felt sorry for me but preferred to stay away. After three years of battling anxiety, depression and the desperation of battling with my mind, I stopped taking the medication. This raised eyebrows, but I couldn’t face life feeling horrible, ashamed, unworthy and hating my body. I didn’t know what to do. I started hiding from people, hiding from myself.

I admired other brave cancer warriors’ joy and courage, those who tell themselves they can, even when they don’t feel like it. My view of life wasn’t rosy at all; nothing made sense anymore, and I knew people wouldn’t understand my reality of everyday life. Trying to hold your pose in society is challenging.

Only once I started seeing a psychologist could I understand my mind. I learnt to mourn my loss, thank my body for warning me and deal with each negative emotion. It doesn’t matter what stage of cancer you have; you have to let life treat you with kindness and mercy. Learn to love your body, be kind to it and, most of all, focus your mind entirely on life.

Changing my mindset didn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and you have to be patient with your body and your ‘pain mind’. Reach out. Share your feelings with loved ones, family and friends. Now, I can look back at my journey and understand the psychological and physical battle. One of those you can sort out quickly and the other is your constant companion. Check your thoughts. Enjoy life. Make time for your favourite people and activities. If you’re currently in the middle of your journey, take it easy and don’t be too hard on yourself. Ignore negative comments. Focus on your healing. If you don’t feel up to it right now, that’s OK. Once you feel better, create new memories. Please don’t hate your body; you’re still beautiful and wonderfully created. Put on glasses that’ll show you life from

a healed perspective. Build yourself up.

Denise Williams

Back in 2016, I thought life couldn’t get much better. I’d celebrated my 60th birthday with the news of my daughter’s miracle pregnancy and embarked on an adventurous biking holiday and a getaway to Zanzibar.

But within days of welcoming my granddaughter into the world in August 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, we caught it early – and I decided from day one that I was going to see my granddaughter turn 21 and cancer wasn’t going to beat me.

After six years, I’m blessed to say I’m in remission and have a new lease on life. I’m healthy and well and love my job. I started exercising before my diagnosis, and I’ll do my 100th parkrun this year. I watch my diet, and started juicing during my treatment.

I’ve always had a passion for travelling. I’ve just returned from America, where I met my 18-month-old grandchild born during the height of this pandemic. I provide motivational talks and freely offer my support to anyone diagnosed with breast cancer.

It’s strange, but given a choice, I’d walk this path again. Having breast cancer made me appreciate the simple things in life again and see the things I took for granted through new eyes. I’m grateful for waking up every day. When you have to deal with a massive event like this, it makes you look deep within and learn so much about yourself.

I never asked, why me? I mean, why not me? What makes me so different? More than 100 000 South Africans receive a cancer diagnosis each year. One in eight women is diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed amongst women, and there are an average of 45 new breast cancer diagnoses every week at the Groote Schuur Hospital alone.

Positivity was probably the most prominent factor in my recovery. A friend in the US has just been diagnosed, and I’m doing everything I can to keep her positive. During my treatment, I saw first-hand how a positive mindset played a critical role in the recovery of many of my fellow patients. Cancer isn’t something you can walk away from: you have to tackle it head-on.

I thank my lucky stars for having income protection, which carried me financially through the darkest time in my life. Having financial peace of mind positively impacts how you deal with a stressful time. I took out a policy with Bidvest Life (then FMI) at the age of 59 and was diagnosed at 60 – and their support was incredible and invaluable.

I still run my own business. I’m 66 and have no intention of retiring! My granddaughter turned six last weekend, and she brings me so much joy. Breast cancer changes your life forever. For me, it was for the better.

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