We speak to four women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in their autumn years.
Kathy Hankey (76), a widow, lives in Bedfordview, Gauteng. She has four children and seven grandchildren.
For a woman who has never even had flu or been off sick in her lifetime, a breast cancer diagnosis is a hard pill to swallow. However, after the initial shock, Kathy explains she is quite happy that she got breast cancer at this late stage of her life as she has had a good exciting life – full of travelling, fun and good memories.
Last year June, after coming home from gym – the grandmother would exercise three times a week – Kathy changed as her bra was hurting her. While undressing she felt a lump in her right breast. Immediately, she phoned her doctor and luckily there had just been a cancellation. There, she was referred to another doctor, who had a cancellation the next day. “So, in two-twos, I was in the hospital having the lump removed,” Kathy recalls.
Treatment and side effects
A lumpectomy or a mastectomy were offered, however, Kathy opted for a mastectomy saying, “I am 76…I don’t need it anymore.” Her concern was that cancer cells may be left behind.
Next up were four sessions of chemotherapy, followed by a year’s treatment of Herceptin (every three weeks) which she is still currently undergoing. She is also on tamoxifen, a selective oestrogen receptor modulator.
Her daughter, Cindy, has been by her side, taking her to all her appointments as her other three children all reside overseas.
Thankfully, Kathy hasn’t endured any nausea or vomiting. Though, she has lost her hair, but even that is proving to be a positive as Cindy says her mom looks great with short hair.
Due to a metallic taste in her mouth, the 76-year-old doesn’t eat as much anymore and has dropped from 67kg to 53kg – but then again, she sees this as a good change.
Age was of no concern
Not once did Kathy think her age was against her, nor did any of her doctors mention her age as a worry. With that mind-set, her approach to her treatment has been an optimistic one. “I don’t think of my breast cancer as a drama in my life,” Kathy adds.
The retired secretary has kept up her busy schedule – knitting group; Bible study; book and luncheon clubs; and her women’s auxiliary group, which she adds is the most caring bunch of women who bring her food and shower her with prayers and visits. The only activity that has taken a knock is her exercising.
Knitted her own knocker
Interestingly enough for the past six years, Kathy and her knitting group have been making Knitted Knockers for breast cancer patients at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, so after her mastectomy she decided she would make her own, which she happily wears.
Aims to follow in her mom’s footsteps
Kathy admits when she first heard that she had breast cancer, she never thought she would ‘go’ at 76, always having thought she would follow in her mother’s footstep, who passed two weeks short of 97 years old.
But now, Kathy still aims to follow her mom, reaching the ripe old age of 97. “I will carry on regardless,” Kathy says.
Gladys Franklin (80) and her husband live in Atholl, Gauteng. They have two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Looking at Gladys, you would never think she has just turned 80 years old; she doesn’t have a speck of grey hair and looks great despite being diagnosed with breast cancer last year October.
Too scared to tell daughters
For almost two years, Gladys knew she had a lump in her right breast, confessing, “At my age I know exactly what a lump is all about…and to be honest I was scared to tell my daughters.” Eventually, Gladys plucked up the courage and shared her secret.
After a doctor’s appointment, it was confirmed to be a lazy, slow-growing Stage 2 cancer. Anastrozole, an aromatase inhibitor (AI), was prescribed for three months (one tablet a day). The breast specialist explained that Gladys may have to undergo surgery but she first wanted to see how the tumour reacted to the medication, asking her to come for a check-up every month.
The specialist went on to explain that they (surgeons) don’t like to do surgery on people in Gladys’ age group, but emphasised the good success rate of the treatment that was prescribed.
With Gladys’ last check-up, good news was to be celebrated. X-rays were taken and the tumour had shrunk thus it is responding well to the chosen treatment. Surgery is still off the cards for now, though Gladys must continue with the tablets for six months, and then will have a check-up in August.
Even Gladys says she can feel the difference in size since taking the medication. “At first, it felt like a little horn, but now it has rounded off,” she explains.
Don’t worry, it is not chemo
The 80-year-old recalls that chemotherapy didn’t even cross her mind when she heard the diagnosis but even so she was relieved when she saw it was only tablets she had to take and when the breast specialist said, “And, don’t worry, it’s not chemo.” No side effects have been experienced since being on the medication.
Moving in with daughter
After Gladys was diagnosed, her husband and her moved into the cottage on her eldest daughter’s property (they used to live in a retirement village in Fordsburg). Since then there have been many positive changes; one being the couple eating much better – with Gladys gaining much needed weight. “When we stayed by ourselves, we hardly ate and when we did, we made sandwiches or ate bread. Now, we are forced to eat proper meals, plus my granddaughter gives me all these health drinks in the morning,” Gladys says.
Her usual weight was 78kg but after a period she shrivelled down to 45kg. A doctor told her it was due to complications caused by sinusitis. But now after five months of good healthy food, she weighs 54kg.
Glad God has spared her
The grandmother is thankful that her daughter took her to the specialist and is especially grateful to the breast specialist, who holds a fond place in Gladys’ heart. However, Gladys does regret not consulting a doctor earlier. “If I went a year earlier, maybe it would be gone by now,” she says.
Carol Honeywall (75), a widow, lives in a retirement village in Roosevelt Park, Gauteng. Her daughter and three grandchildren stay abroad.
Carol has not only faced a breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 68, but still battles non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since the age of 59, and has also had a melanoma removed from her face. Nevertheless, she blissfully enjoys her days saying while there’s life, there is hope.
In 2002, while Carol was still working as a military nurse, her right leg was so swollen that it was hanging over her shoe. After numerous tests were done at 1 Military Hospital, she was referred to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (CHBH) and there she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Since having treatment, the lymphoma recurred twice. In total, Carol has undergone 30 chemotherapy treatments, plus six months’ oral medication. Currently, there is a swollen lymph gland on her chest that is being monitored.
While visiting her daughter in New Zealand in July 2011, Carol felt a lump and saw a bruise on her breast but shrugged it off, thinking one of her grandchildren had elbowed her while playing. After telling her daughter, a doctor’s appointment was set up.
A mammogram, sonar and a biopsy were all done in New Zealand, however, Carol needed to fly back to South Africa to receive treatment as the medical insurance from the air ticket wouldn’t cover the treatment. So, her three-month holiday was cut short to two months.
Carol first went to 1 Military Hospital, where she was told a mastectomy would be done and all the surrounding lymph glands would be removed. Carol was not happy with that surgery path so asked her haematologist at CHBH for advice. He then referred her to Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic. There she was offered a lumpectomy and a breast reduction on the other breast; this surgery option suited her better and she went ahead with it.
Once the retired nurse had recovered from surgery, she started six weeks of chemotherapy. Though, the ‘Red Devil’ could not to be used as she already had 12 cycles to treat her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and that was the maximum limit a person could have. Thereafter, 21 radiation session took place. Both these treatments took place at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. Last year April, Carol completed her five-year tamoxifen treatment.
Deep vein thrombosis
Unfortunately, she suffered a deep vein thrombosis caused by the tamoxifen. Her leg swelled up after travelling on a bus to visit her sister. She doctored herself with Disprin but then once back in JHB, her doctor put her on a blood thinning injection for a few weeks then on warfarin. She stopped warfarin the same time her tamoxifen treatment came to an end.
There is still life
Lastly, it was in 2016 that a melanoma was removed from Carol’s face. Even though, her health seems to be a constant battle, the grandmother enjoys her days at the retirement village, keeping herself busy with her knitting and friendships groups and often visits friends in Pretoria. She is one hundred percent correct when she says, while there is life, there is hope.
Kathleen Joseph (72) is married and lives in Davidsonville, Gauteng. She has three children (two have passed away), 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.
The year 2015 was a year that shook Kathleen to the core. She lost her youngest son and eldest daughter in the space of a month, and then six months later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She tells us how she got through this difficult time.
Kathleen was still mourning her two children when she felt a ‘knot’ in her left breast; now there was another reason to lie awake at night and cry.
She went to the doctor and the final blow of 2015 hit her; she had breast cancer. Looking back at how she manged to face another life trauma, she recalls it was her church congregation and fellow choir members that encouraged her to keep on fighting. Plus, she still had three children, a husband, and grandchildren who needed her.
“Just before I was wheeled into theatre, I asked if I could go to the bathroom; I sat there and sang my favourite hymn…I knew God was by my side,” Kathleen says while gently weeping.
Seeing the bright side
After the mastectomy at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic, she went for chemotherapy and radiation at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
Speaking frankly, Kathleen admits she looked forward to chemotherapy as it was an outing for her. “The nurses were so nice and supportive and I enjoyed talking to and meeting new people,” she says.
Her sister-in-law and brother would accompany her to the hospital, standing in the queues for her and fetching her files. “They were really compassionate,” she says.
The 72-year-old laughs when she tells how her grandson asked her, “Ma, why did you cut your titty off?” She explains that she told him that is was sore and it needed to come off. “Then when my hair started to fall out, he was lying on the bed with me and was playing with my hair, he enjoys that, and then he asked, ‘Ma, why is your hair falling out?’ So, I said ‘I am tired of having hair now.’”
Currently, she is still on tamoxifen and goes for regular check-ups.
Hip pain but good to go
For a long time, Kathleen has battled with her hip, and as she ages it seems to get worse. “The pain runs down to my knees. The doctors just keep on giving me painkillers but it doesn’t seem to help anymore,” she says. “But, other than that my health is fine and I am very thankful to God.”
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