Pumla Ngamlana (48) tells us how she took control of her battle against breast cancer and the victory she gained by doing this.
Pumla Ngamlana (48) lives in Liefde en Vrede, Gauteng. She has a 28-year-old son and recently became a grandmother.
In November 2016, when Pumla went for her bi-annual Pap smear, her gynae asked if she has ever had a mammogram. Pumla hadn’t, but she was open to have one done. Micro-calcification (tiny deposits of calcium in breast tissue) was picked up in her left breast; Pumla was referred for a biopsy. This finding left Pumla shell-shocked as it was her first time and she didn’t expect anything to be wrong. She convinced herself that there was something wrong with the machine. Nonetheless, she went for the biopsy.
“I was never ready for that biopsy…it was the one thing that killed me emotionally. I was told that it’s a quick procedure – in and out. But there was a struggle to get the specimen. At first, they used three 16g needles but they pushed it up to 24/26. In-between I was asked, ‘I hope you are not a squeamish person.’ They were concerned I would faint.
It wasn’t physically sore…it was more about hurting my soul,” Pumla recalls. “They went out of their way to make me comfortable but my mind was not prepared for that.” Once Pumla got in her car, she burst into tears. “I had to just let it all out. This is where it got real for me.”
Results overshadow holiday
On the 19th December, Pumla was told to come into the doctor’s room; she had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). She didn’t know how she was going to face travelling to East London the next two days with family. Her plan was not to tell anyone until they all arrived at her mother’s house. But once she got to her younger sister’s house, to rest for the night, she told her.
“My sister was standing by the sink, cutting vegetables. Once the word cancer came out my mouth, the knife and vegetables went flying.” The rest of the family came rushing into the kitchen after hearing the commotion and Pumla broke the news. She asked them not to tell anyone, especially her son as she wanted to tell him personally.
Pumla feebly admits that on the second day of travelling, while driving she wanted a truck to hit her car. “I didn’t care about the others who were in the car with me. I had to tell myself, Pumla this is extremely selfish of you,” she explains. By the time they reached Bloemfontein, Pumla told her sister to take over and drive. Pumla sat in the back. Here, she thought about how she was going to tell her sickly mother and her only son.
Unfortunately, due to confusion and miscommunication, her son found out before Pumla could tell him herself. That night, he ignored her calls and texts. Eventually, she received a message from him saying, “My dear, do you have to die so young?” She then called him and reassured him, just as her doctor reassured her.
Telling her mother went smoothly. The next day, her son came home and the family enjoyed their holiday together. Though Pumla wished for January to come, mostly staying at home.
January finally came. Pumla had been referred to a doctor but the appointment was much later in the month. She could not wait so long. So, she called a friend, who is a doctor. Her friend heard the panic in her voice and tried to secure an appointment at The Breast Care Centre of Excellence, in Milpark, though the next appointment was only in two-weeks’ time.
Pumla then heard the specialist also practiced at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic. So, Pumla went there and waited in the long queue. She eventually consulted with the specialist who arranged an appointment at Milpark that same afternoon. Straight from HJH, Pumla went to wait at Milpark.
After consultation and multi-disciplinary meetings, Pumla’s treatment path was mapped out. Surgery was planned for March. On the 13th March, a lumpectomy was done on the right breast (it was found there was cancer there too) with slight reconstruction and preserveration of the nipple, and a mastectomy was done on the left breast. Then, on the 15th March, lap-flat reconstruction took place on the left breast. Though, the left nipple could not be saved but an artificial nipple was constructed by the reconstructive surgeon.
Thereafter, the plan was for the remainder of the left breast to undergo radiation. But the multi-disciplinary team, after seeing the good results after surgery, decided to rather monitor her. Tamoxifen was prescribed for two years. Though this could change depending on the results of her check-ups.
The foe called pain
When Pumla went for her check-up with the reconstructive surgeon, she would try to hide the pain she was experiencing. Though, luckily, the surgeon saw through her facade, and prescribed pain killers for the chronic pain. Today, she still suffers with pain in the scar areas and she struggles to lift her left arm. Though Pumla has chosen to wear sports bras, not under-wire bras, to decrease the pressure on the scar area. “I have also cut down on the pain killers and only take them if I am in terrible agony,” she adds.
Owning her battle
Looking back Pumla acknowledges her denial. She explains that her mom told her about herbs, which need to be boiled and drank, that would make the cancer ‘go away’. She ordered the herbs from Cape Town. Her mom came back to JHB with her as she wanted to support Pumla, and would boil the herbs for her to drink.
The herbalist advised her to avoid red meat, dairy products and sugar, which Pumla already had started to do. Though, the deciding factor came in when speaking to the herbalist over the phone and he told her not to go for the surgery. He advised for her to finish the first bottle, then order a second bottle and once done with that, wait a period of three months to see the progress. “This is where my ‘Fight like a girl’ came in. I was not going to give him another three months with my life. It’s my life at the end of the day. Allow me to make my decisions. If anyone has regrets, it will be me. I will carry the pain. It’s my lifestyle that has to change,” she says. After that phone call, in February 2017, Pumla stopped drinking the herbs and never spoke to the herbalist again.
Facing fears head-on
It’s Pumla’s faith that also forms part of her ‘Fight like a girl’ armour. She fully trusted in God in paving the way. Other pillars of strength were her family, partner, colleagues and church at large. Then lastly, a survivor her reconstructive surgeon referred her to, to find out more about lat flap surgery. “We were only supposed to meet for 30 minutes. I left there four hours later. When I saw her, I was astonished. She looked so great. I thought I was going to meet a sickly person. She gave me hope and life. She said, “Pumla, it’s all in your mind. Fight it!’ I knew what decisions I had to make. I was going to face all my fears head-on.”
“I was not going to give him another three months with my life. It’s my life at the end of the day. Allow me to make my decisions. If anyone has regrets, it will be me.”
MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams
Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. firstname.lastname@example.org