Jo van der Molen tells us her extraordinary story of how she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer just 12 days after giving birth, how her mother, Wendy, was also diagnosed with breast cancer just eight months later, and how her son, Matthew, has been her cherub child.
Jo van der Molen (47) lives in Randburg, Gauteng with her husband, Simon, and their son, Matthew (2). She is a metastatic breast cancer patient.
A gift from God
Jo’s lifelong wish of becoming a mother came true on 22 December 2016 when Matthew was born. Simon and Jo tried to conceive for three years and suffered two miscarriages. They then chose the route of assisted fertility support and today are proud parents of an adorable toddler.
“The minute the pregnancy was confirmed at 12 weeks, we had a name: Matthew which means gift from God. Which he is. I had an amazing pregnancy. I didn’t suffer much morning sickness, had no ailments and only picked up 7kgs,” Jo says.
I’ve waited for this child all my life. God would not give me this child to take me away from him.
Jo noticed a lump in her right breast around the fourth month of pregnancy. She explains, “I wanted anyone who would listen to feel it. Though, everybody, including my gynae, put it down to the pregnancy.”
Jo was determined to breastfeed but it was a battle. This led to a lactation consultant being sent to her. The lactation consultant said if Jo doesn’t come right, she will refer her to a breast specialist. Jo persevered, spending a few thousand rand on breastfeeding paraphernalia; to no avail. After 10 days, her right breast was barely producing 5ml.
So, on 4 January 2017, Jo went to see the recommended breast specialist. With a 12-day-old baby in her arms and both her parents by her side, Jo heard the words, “You have cancer”.
“I went home, held my baby and demanded a G&T, which I didn’t even finish. I turned to my mom and said, ‘I’ve waited for this child all my life. God would not have given me this child, to take me away from him.’ They say, you decide on the day of your diagnosis, whether you will live or die. I decided I will live. I stopped breastfeeding (and drinking LOL!) and Matt went straight on formula, and we haven’t looked back.” Jo explains.
HER2 positive breast cancer
Jo was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer and was referred to an oncologist. “When I sat in the oncologist’s room and listened to her talk about my case, it felt like she was talking about another person’s prognosis. From my biopsy, and sitting with my specialist, it had all seemed so positive. But now sitting with my husband, the oncologist was suddenly using these scary words: metastatic, chemotherapy, spread to the glands, potential spread to the liver. Everything I knew nothing about. Within minutes, I’d gone from Stage 2 to Stage 4. We were devastated!” Jo recalls.
Simon and Jo had only been married for a short while, and within a few months Simon had become a father and then his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a lot for him to handle and he took strain.
The planned treatment was six-months of chemotherapy (4 x red devil and 12 x white flags). A mastectomy was not an option as there were lesions on Jo’s liver already. Herceptin was introduced during chemo, to be administered every three weeks, for as long as Jo’s body responds.
Last year, it became available subcutaneously, and Jo eventually opted for this since it was much cheaper and quicker, with no reports of reduced efficacy.
Wendy, Jo’s mother, looked after Matt whenever Jo had a doctor’s appointment and the new mother and son would stay over at Wendy’s after Jo’s chemo. “My mom would do the night feeds and play Florence Nightingale until I felt better to go home. Plus, Matt was so good. He was still a new-born baby so he slept most of the time and I got him in a routine of sleeping long stretches at night.”
Jo says that before her chemotherapy was completed, the cancer in the breast was gone. Though, as a precaution, in March 2018, she had 30 sessions of radiation.
However, the lesions in the liver and the spread to the bones were of concern. At the beginning of last year, Zometa was included, with every Herceptin treatment, to treat the spread in the bones. Jo’s response to this had been good, so she now only gets Zometa administered every three to four months.
Then in August 2018, Jo had stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) to treat the lesions in her liver. This specialised, high-frequency radiation only targets the lesions and doesn’t damage the surrounding tissue.
She now goes for quarterly scans, annual sonar and mammogram, and her Herceptin and Zometa treatment.
Most liberating time of my life
Before Jo started chemotherapy in February, her and her mother went and bought a wig. “We had such fun that day; I tried on so many wigs. My parents – mom, dad and step dad – also went to a cancer support group to find out how they could best support me,” Jo explains.
When Jo’s hair started to fall out, her hairdresser cut her hair into a bob. Then Jo shaved her head when it came out in chunks. “We had a ceremony. The hairdresser came to my house and shaved my head, on a number two, and my dad shaved his head in sympathy. Simon was here and we all held hands and it was very gentle and beautiful. Eventually when it all fell out, Simon shaved my head bald. He also made me keep my ponytail from when I first cut my hair (it was down past my shoulders),” explains Jo. “After three months, I thought to myself: Bugger this! I am bald and I’m tired of hiding it. So, I stopped wearing my wig and it was the most liberating time of my life.”
Complementary therapy added
From the time Jo was on chemotherapy, she cut out sugar, alcohol, and everything she possibly could.
Though, she adds, “When you are metastatic, you get over that. Now, if I feel like something, I have it. But I do try to live a balanced, controlled, aware lifestyle.”
Jo also took all the buzzword supplements that she heard about. Though, later on, and after consulting with Pink Parasol Project, she realised that what works for one person, may not necessarily work for her, and some supplements could actually interfere with her treatment.
Jo incorporated acupuncture and craniosacral therapy (a gentle yet powerful healthcare approach that works through the central nervous system to assist in improving body functions) as part of her treatment regime, as well as counselling, meditation and sound therapy.
Jo believes that diet is critical, and still consults with a dietitian and fellow breast cancer survivor, Ashleigh Caradas (who was featured in Buddies For Life Jan/Feb issue).
She also started a Facebook page for mothers like her, who are beating cancer, thus giving further purpose to her life.
Mom gets diagnosed eight months later
Wendy Stead (72) lives in Fourways, Gauteng with her second husband. Her son lives in Australia and she has three grandchildren.
Wendy hates to admit that she had never been for a mammogram before she was diagnosed. That was until she felt a lump. She explains, “It was the strangest thing, eight months after Jo was diagnosed, I had a tiny little feeling of heaviness in my left breast. It didn’t last longer than two to four seconds. But, somehow, I took note of it. I put my arm up and I felt a lump.”
“When I walked in for my mammogram I explained why I was there. I started crying and told the radiographer, ‘I can’t have cancer. My daughter has it and has an eight-month-old baby. I need to be there to look after them.’”
It was confirmed that Wendy had breast cancer, but a different type of cancer to Jo. Wendy’s treatment plan comprised a lumpectomy, removal of two lymph glands and reconstruction; six-months of chemotherapy; and 28 radiation sessions. The 72-year-old is also on tamoxifen, for five years.
Wendy knew Jo was in a fragile state and so she broke the news by saying, “Jo, I need you to sit down. I’m going to tell you something and I need you to put your big girl panties on…I’ve got cancer.” Jo was utterly shattered when she heard the news but was glad she knew who to phone. Jo phoned all her treating doctors, who then became Wendy’s treating doctors.
Jo shepherds her mom through treatment
“I wish Jo didn’t know what she knows and what you have to do but because she does, she was absolutely amazing in shepherding me around,” Wendy says.
Jo adds, “Mom wasn’t very good with following up with doctors, and when she had a side effect, I would have to tell her that she needs to tell the oncologist so she can treat it.”
Three of the mother and daughter’s chemo sessions overlapped. Jo’s main chemo was finished but she was still going in for Herceptin and Wendy had just started chemo. Wendy says, “We would go for chemotherapy together. And, I would think this is ridiculous. Mothers and daughters are supposed to go out for lunch together. Not go for chemo together. My son, in Australia, joked saying that we were trying to get a family discount.”
Wendy says she cruised through chemotherapy while making use of a cold cap to keep her hair. Though halfway through treatment, a nurse missed the vein and the chemo went into the tissue instead. “The chemo was nothing but this was terrible. My arm was red and itchy for three months and I could hardly sleep,” she says. Wendy was put on antibiotics to avoid getting cellulitis. Though, the then 70-year-old carried on teaching yoga and never missed her eight classes a week. Today, she still teaches yoga.
This is ridiculous. Mothers and daughters are supposed to go out for lunch together. Not go for chemo together.”
Jo was by Wendy’s side when she rang the bell indicating she had her last chemo session. By this time, Matt had started nursery school. This suited Jo, especially when she started her radiation, as she needed the rest as it really took a toll on her.
Living like a girl without cancer
Wendy and Jo always had a close relationship but facing cancer together has only strengthened that bond even more so. Wendy explains, “It makes you realise how important family is and that no one is immortal.” While Jo puts it so aptly,
“There is true empathy when it’s a relative that is going through what you went through. No one knows what mom is going through except me. I mean you don’t know if it’s going to be alright.
It was easier being the patient, then a child of a patient. It was hard to watch mom go through everything.”
Both Jo and Wendy are doing well; Wendy is in remission and Jo is stable.
“I’m living like a girl without cancer.
I have never owned the cancer, it’s not mine. There’s something called ‘radical remission’; a holistic healing and recovery against the odds. I believe that Matt has been my healing grace. He is my cherub child, and will be my radical remission as well.” Jo says.
Since this article was written, Jo had a check-up and the lesions in the liver are active again. A new treatment regime has commenced. The BFL and BHF team wish this mother beating cancer all the best.
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