We speak to Rhys and Annemarie van Wyk about being three years into marriage when Annemarie was diagnosed with breast cancer; the possibility of having children; throwing a ‘boob-farewell’ party; and how they celebrate life together.
Rhys (34) and Annemarie, (30) live in Paarl, Western Cape with their two four-legged children.
Strength and resilience
Before Annemarie went in for her double mastectomy, Rhys and Annemarie held a ‘boob-farewell’ party with all their friends and family, complete with a boob-shaped cake.
Then three days after her mastectomy, Annemarie was back at work (Rhys and Annemarie own a jewellery business: JADE South Africa – www.jade-sa.co.za).This was after she got extremely frustrated at the hospital and discharged herself after day two.
A week later, the couple were guests at Rhys’ friend’s wedding, drainage pipes and all. Then, five days after Annemarie’s second reconstruction, the couple were once again dancing and celebrating at another wedding.
Rhys says it was this strength that Annemarie displayed that gave him the courage to face each day.
Facing the big C
Annemarie felt a lump whilst showering. “I’d never done a self-examination before. The discovery was purely accidental. I was giving myself a body scrub. I assumed it was just a bump. Rhys tried to get me to go to a doctor as his mother had been diagnosed just before we got married. But I didn’t,” she explains.
“A few weeks later, I was at a routine check-up. Rhys accompanied me and he insisted the doctor have a look. It was a short trip from there to have a sonar, a mammogram, and then set up an appointment one week later for a biopsy. My medical aid wouldn’t pay for the sonar or mammogram because I was ‘too young’. I got the phone call three days later in October 2015.”
Annemarie continues, “After getting that phone call, the first thing that popped into my mind was that I was going to die, and who would take care of Rhys? We had only been married for three years! I thought of all our single girlfriends and which one of them would best suit him. I realise how insane it must sound! My biggest fear was that Rhys would spend the rest of his life alone, that he would never be able to get over me.”
When asked how he experienced the news, Rhys responds, “My whole life came crashing down in that single moment. I was terrified I was going to lose Annemarie. You have this ‘Why is this happening to us?’ moment but that was only fleeting. We never dwelled on the why and how. Although, lots of people had opinions as to why Annemarie got cancer. That always made me so mad! All I thought of next was what we were going to do to make sure she made it through this.”
Even though the young couple got support from their friends and family, they admit in the beginning it was tough. “For the first week, we took anxiety medication just so we could face people,” Rhys explains.
Annemarie was told she would need to have a mastectomy and would lose a nipple, and she may need chemotherapy which would impact her fertility. Rhys and Annemarie then did a four-month crash IVF treatment course in 10 days. “It was hell but we managed to preserve four healthy embryos,” she explains.
Annemarie had a MammaPrint test – a genomic test that analyses the activity of certain genes in early-stage breast cancer. Unfortunately, Annemarie’s medical aid didn’t pay for this either, even though the results advised that chemotherapy would be of limited benefit to her survival.
Out of personal choice, Annemarie had a bilateral mastectomy, with immediate reconstruction. She then needed a second operation four months later to finish the reconstruction on her left breast, where the nipple was removed.
After Annemarie’s recovery, she started her three-monthly Zoladex injections (which stops the ovaries from producing oestrogen which ultimately prevents the breast cancer from returning). She was also prescribed tamoxifen for five years, which has unfortunately put Annemarie in menopause.
Change in intimacy
Annemarie explains that there has been a big change in her and Rhys’ sexual intimacy. “I have been put in a chemically-induced menopause to starve my cancer of oestrogen. Some of the side effects are vaginal dryness, insomnia, hot flushes, forgetfulness and irritability, together with low sex drive and depression.”
“The first two years of intimacy was incredibly difficult and painful, which decreased my sex drive even more and then that increased my depression. It’s a vicious cycle!”
“There were so many times I thought it would be better for Rhys, if he just left me. On top of that, I’d gained 6kgs, lost both breasts, one nipple and all sensation in the very thin layer of the remaining breast tissue. I felt like half a woman (and sometimes still do).
But now, we have found various medications that aid in relieving some of the side effects and I can honestly say we’re going strong and dealing with everything together.”
Possibility of children
Annemarie desperately wants children, and since she tuned 30 even more so. She often gets depressed because she can’t just fall pregnant. That she can’t just say, “I’m going off the pill, let’s see what happens.”
“I hate that that too has been taken away from me. I was very lucky that I didn’t need chemo. So, from what I understand, once I finish the treatment plan, I’ll be able to fall pregnant naturally and as easily as would have been the case before,” she says.
Though on the other hand, Rhys is fearful about having children as Annemarie’s cancer is oestrogen-driven and pregnancy is a risk. Annemarie says, “If it came back while I was pregnant, we would have to choose. So, we’ve decided not to discuss having kids until treatment is done. Until then our dogs are all we need. And already, I have to stop Rhys from showing our friends all the photos of them!”
Gaining confidence through a photo shoot
Annemarie and her friend, Carla, who is also a breast cancer survivor, were asked by a mutual friend, Simone, who is a photographer, to do a photo shoot. By this time, Annemarie’s reconstruction was complete, and as you can see by the images, Annemarie is beautiful.
Though Simone and Carla had to twist Annemarie’s arm to do it. “I’m very critical of myself. My body has changed so much with my treatment, but I eventually agreed.”
Annemarie adds, “I’m not very comfortable in front of cameras but looking at the photographs, especially one, I can say I look and feel strong, brave, powerful and even sexy. Which is how every woman should feel, whether having gone through this or not!”
Rhys admits that when he heard about the photo shoot, he was a little nervous, but after seeing the outcome he is content. “It was tastefully done. Both Annemarie and Carla look beautiful, powerful, full of life and sexy as well. It’s a bit weird to think so many strangers have seen so much of my wife but I think she needed it to get her confidence back. The response was overwhelmingly positive!”
Stronger as a couple
Rhys concludes, “After seeing Annemarie brave this journey, I see her stronger, more determined, more radiant and more beautiful than ever before. The whole ordeal made us stronger as a couple. I hope that if I have any health issues I can face it with the same courage as she has shown.”
This amazing couple will continue to celebrate life together by travelling, drinking great wine with good friends, and being active outdoors with their dogs.
Photos by Simone Davis www.goldenfoxphoto.com | Instagram @goldenfox
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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