Within a period of 17 years, three family members – two sisters and an uncle – were diagnosed with breast cancer at different ages of their lives: a 33-year-old mother with two young children, a 47-year-old businesswoman, who had her second child three years prior, and a 73-year-old pastor and grandfather. We hear their unique stories.
1997: THE OLDER SISTER
Vashti Thomas (52) is divorced. She lives in Winchester Hills, south of Johannesburg, and has two adult children and one grandchild.
The night of her diagnosis of Stage 4 duct breast cancer, Vashti lay in bed and was so aware of the cancer in her left breast. “It felt like I could physically feel it growing,” Vashti said. “I didn’t know much about cancer then, so in my mind, the next thing to happen was for me to die. There was no in between.”
When Vashti first visited her gynaecologist, she was told the lump was unlikely to be cancer as she had such a low risk due to her age, which was 33, and not having a family history of cancer. Only after the consultation, did her mother tell her that, in actual fact, her two aunts had breast cancer. At the time of their deaths, the reasoning was not divulged.
“My diagnosis tormented me. I never slept at all that night. Never underestimate fear, it is such a dominant emotion. I kept on thinking who is going to look after my children? They are so young!” Vashti explained. Her daughter was eight and her son was six.
Vashti was diagnosed on a Thursday and on the Monday, her left breast was removed along with several lymph nodes. The abrupt surgery didn’t phase her; she never questioned it, as in her mind, it was part of her life-saving solution; she was giving up her breast in order to live.
After recovering from surgery, her radiation commenced. By this time, Vashti was reading up on cancer and through gaining valuable knowledge she started to see a little light of hope. In Vashti’s own words, “Knowledge carries power.”
Three rounds of the “Red Devil” were up next for the mother of two. She suffered tremendously with side effects and couldn’t fathom how violently ill she became from the drug that was going to make her better.
Due to her cancer being aggressive, her oncologist recommended high-dose chemotherapy, which is six months of chemo administered in one go. Vashti was kept in isolation for six weeks at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre. When you have this chemo, 24-hour monitoring in needed as it alters the bone marrow and the side effects are frenetic.
Vashti thought because she had chemo before, she would be able to handle it, but nothing could have prepared her for what was to come. “To this day, I still can not put what happened to me into words,” Vashti said.
She recalls being in and out of consciousness, appallingly sick, dreadfully lonely, extremely weak and aware of her heart slowing down. “I was fighting a battle, but my opponent was myself. I remember my youngest sister sang me the song “In the arms of an angel” on the cell phone and I so desperately wanted to feel like that!” Vashti said.
“I said to God that I don’t want to live. I knew He was good enough to take care of my children and that my husband would be there for them. I surrendered the fight to God.” But when Vashti opened her eyes, she was still alive and felt so at peace. The doctor confirmed that they had nearly lost her.
Vashti believes that surrendering her fight to God was the turning point of her recovery and her miracle. Once she surrendered, she received super natural ability to survive and still has it today. “Nineteen years on, I am still living my miracle!” she said.
The reality of losing her left breast only sank in six months later. “I was showering and I saw myself in the mirror. My hair was growing back, I was getting fatter and then I saw I only had one breast. I went into such a depression,” Vashti said.
But luckily Vashti’s involvement with Reach For Recovery where she met newly diagnosed breast cancer patients, helped her overcome her mourning and depression.
Today Vashti is a proud grandmother and is living her “happily ever after.”
2013: THE YOUNGER SISTER
Abigail Runganaikulu (50) recently released her first book My Stupid brain was Cut Off with my right Breast. She lives in Aspen Hills with her husband and youngest son, Caleb. She has one grandson.
As if falling pregnant with her second child at the age of 44 wasn’t enough of a shock; three years later Abigail had to face the actuality that she too had breast cancer, just like her older sister and two aunts. Once she had discovered the lump in her right breast, she immediately made a doctor’s appointment. “I knew deep inside that it was breast cancer,” Abigail said.
Abigail was alone in her office when she got the news of her diagnosis of duct breast cancer. She knew that the way she reacted when she told her family, would be the way her family would feel. She prayed to God for strength before breaking the news to them. Abigail was no stranger to being the anchor and strength of her family. This had always been her role.
Colin, her husband, was heartbroken while her eldest son Ryan was more optimistic. “He takes after me and faces problems head-on,” Abigail said. “I thought if I told Vashti, she would calm my family down, but when I told her she fell apart.” Vashti later explained that she couldn’t bear the fact that her sister was going to endure what she had, and got so caught up in the emotion.
When Abigail went to Dr Benn’s rooms at Netcare Milpark Hospital, she was surprised to see so many breast cancer patients. “I saw all these people and I never even knew they existed!” she said. “All I wanted to know from Dr Benn was if I was going to live. She calmed me down and told me ‘We’ve got this’.”
More tests were done, which overwhelmed Abigail. “You’re going through all these machines and people are telling you ‘put your arm up, put your arm down, do this and do that’, then you have to wait for the results when all you want to do is run out of the hospital,” she explained.
Dr Benn consulted with Dr Moodley, an oncologist, to formulate the treatment plan. It consisted of four rounds of the “Red Devil”, 16 rounds of white chemo, and 12 radiation sessions once surgery was completed.
“My late mother-in-law took care of my youngest son, Caleb, who was a toddler then, and ran my home while I underwent my treatment,” Abigail said. “When you have chemo inside of you – you look like death, you smell like death…I would look in the mirror and what I saw would match how I felt. My finger nails went black, I lost my hair and I became depressed.”
But Colin was Abigail’s pillar of strength. “He never allowed me to mope around…I honestly don’t know how people do this alone! You need a person telling you that you can do this and that you’ll survive. You never know how much a person loves you, until you face a disease like this,” Abigail said.
Abigail made the brave decision of choosing to have her whole breast removed instead of only the nipple, which was the cancerous part. “I didn’t want half a breast and wanted an easy process of reconstruction,” Abigail explained. Within three days, her breast was removed and she underwent lat flap breast reconstruction.
Currently, Abigail doesn’t have a nipple.
Abigail vulnerably admitted, her not having a nipple and the change in her breasts has effected her intimacy with her husband. The tamoxifen has also caused Abigail to have a low libido. “The one thing my husband loved about my body was my breasts…It took me a long time before I could become comfortable within myself in that regard. We had to start working towards our time together,” Abigail said.
The mother of two regards her cancer journey as an epiphany and an enlightenment of what really goes on in the world. With this new revelation, she decided to pen her experience and My Stupid brain was Cut Off with my right Breast was crafted. As a successful businesswoman, who helped grow the family business with her husband, Abigail felt that the wealthier she got, the more she lost her true self; this autobiography-styled book explores how cancer made her realise this and how she evolved. “I want people to know my life wasn’t for nothing, especially my children and family…Also, because I am a strong person, I feel I have been misjudged and I wanted to show that I am deeper than everyone thinks and I, too, have emotions,” Abigail said.
Throughout her treatment and to this day, Abigail clings on to Jesus Christ and the verse, ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ She believes God’s message to her was: ‘this is not going to kill you, but rather make you a better person. I am allowing it’ and our Super Survivor believes it has made her a better person.
My Stupid brain was Cut Off with my right Breast is available from www.amazon.com. All profits from the book will be donated to the Breast Health Foundation.
2014: THE UNCLE
Pastor Johnny Challen (75) lives in Lenasia. He was recently widowed and has eight children and 12 grandchildren.
Johnny was diagnosed with duct breast cancer when he was 73 years old. Due to him being diabetic and suffering with digestive problems, he was at his physician when he casually mentioned the lump he had discovered in his left breast. “I thought it couldn’t be breast cancer. Men don’t get it,” Johnny explained.
“I was a bodybuilder when I was younger so I’ve always had unusually big breasts.” But the small hard lump was not something Johnny was familiar with. His physician immediately sent him for tests and confirmed what he thought it could never be – breast cancer.
“I was angry with God. I have been a pastor for 57 years of my life, lived a clean life, I was God’s servant – how could He let this happen to me?” Johnny recalled how he felt when he heard the news. He remembers when he told his family; they all wept. “I told them not to weep, I am 73 and have had many years, and we all have to die of something.” Little did Johnny know that death wasn’t always the result of cancer.
Johnny’s treatment plan, also formulated by Dr Carol Benn and Dr Moodley, consisted of six months of chemotherapy, a left mastectomy and one month of radiation. He said he was lucky in that he never got sick from the chemo, but did experience a burning sensation in his feet and lost his hair. The radiation darkened his skin and his sense of touch in his left fingers has been lost slightly.
The most devastating part for Johnny was losing his hair. “I had such thick hair and all of us, to a certain degree, are very vain. We want to look good. Some guys look good bald, but it didn’t suit me. I wore a cap, at first, but then my son bought me a wig that looked exactly like my hair used to. I wore it for a year,” Johnny said.
“I can say getting breast cancer was disastrous, not physically, but mentally and psychologically. No male in my family had ever had breast cancer; my two sisters died from it… I struggled to accept that I had it. In my profession, I would advise people how to handle such situations, but when it hit me I was at a loss,” Johnny explained. It took time for Johnny to “trust God and not question Him”, but in due course he did. “I accepted that God was aware of my cancer and would bring something good out of it.”
After the treatment plan was completed and the cancer was removed, Johnny was advised to go on Herceptin chemo for a year and take Temoplex (tamoxifen) for the next five years in order to prevent the cancer from reoccurring. He was hesitant, but after Dr Benn explained that if he was her father, she would still recommend it, he agreed. He is currently halfway through the chemo and said, “I will be taking these tablets (Temoplex) for the rest of my life.”
Where is Johnny psychologically now? “I have peace in my heart. No matter what happens, I am grateful that I am alive and haven’t been in agony like my nieces and other cancer sufferers.”