A mastectomy at 17

This article was first published in Buddies for Life 2015 winter issue. Written by Elsje Smit.

Early detection is key. The biggest thing with my generation is not that we don’t know things, it is more that we are very ignorant. One dismisses things until it happens to you. Be aware of your body! Anything can happen at any time and it’s important to take care of yourself!

Roughly 10 months ago, Velisa Sishuba, a 17-year-old matriculant at South Downs College in northern Gauteng was living a normal high school life. The only thing she didn’t know wasn’t normal, was a lump in her left breast. The teenager shares her journey with us.

Velisa was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a rare type of breast sarcoma, in September 2014, spending the next year going through surgeries and radiation to fight the cancer.

Three months after her doctor failed to spot that she had cancer, this bubbly teenager was forced to undergo a mastectomy. “Mine was an exceptionally rare case, but the more knowledge that you have, the more you can prepare for things to happen in the future,” said Velisa.

An angiosarcoma in the breast is usually at least 4cm in size, and the skin over it may turn a bluish colour. These cancers are more common in women in their 30s and 40s who have not yet undergone menopause.

“When the results from the second biopsy finally became available, it indicated something was hiding behind my breast. Doctors confirmed it is a very rare type of tumour, which needed to be removed immediately to avoid further complications.”

After consulting three different doctors, Velisa found “a really great team of women” physicians at the Milpark Breast Care Centre who developed a suitable treatment plan. “I didn’t even know about this place, but knew I was in very good hands from the very beginning and couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Recalling how she felt when she first received her diagnosis, Velisa said, “I was terrified for my life. Everything was just so surreal…when you go through something like this and medical professionals explain it to you, it’s understandable, but then when reality hits it’s a whole different story.”

Undergoing a week of treatments, which included a CAT scan and lung tests, this bright-eyed teen was exhausted. “I had to undergo CAT scans – I hate that machine, it is very scary – I came out with scars and all bruised, it was just gross! I also had to undergo a lung test to determine how much anaesthesia will be necessary during my surgery. There were so many tests and I had to drink plenty of water. I never drank that much water in my life before. I know it was just scans and tests, but it was really hard and I was extremely emotional at the time.”

On her father’s birthday, December 12, this youngster had to undergo her first surgery. “It totally sucked to miss my dad’s birthday,” said Velisa. “But this surgery was taking out the lump.”

A few days after surgery, Velisa met with her medical team for a consultation, only to discover that she needs a second operation. “I was then informed that they needed to remove 2cm more of my good tissue, because it still could linger some of the bad stuff. So, they took my latissimus dorsi muscle (on the trunk, posterior to the arm) and moved it to the front, and then put an expander in. That was the biggest procedure I had so far – it took about 3 – 4 hours. This happened only four days after my first operation. The operation did take away the cancer and I guess that’s what’s important.”

Being a very independently-minded person, Velisa said it was hard to be vulnerable by force. “After my second operation, my mom had to do everything for me – wash me, brush my teeth, help me to get up. I couldn’t pick up a plate or even read my book. It was awful to be vulnerable by force.”

With a heavy heart, yet brave glance, Velisa remembers when reality hit home. “Being able to take a bath for the first time after my second procedure was amazing! The tub was running and my mom was making it so divine with some bubble bath etc. At that moment, I had time to look at myself in the mirror and that was when it hit me…my one breast was normal and the other not – I was thinking this is what I’m going to look like for the rest of my life.”

During Velisa’s April 2015 school holiday, she underwent a third surgery.  “I basically have had my left breast reconstructed. They just lowered my breast and put the nipple in, to make it look exactly like my right breast. My doctors also did a breast reduction surgery on my right breast to make my breasts look as natural as possible.”

Handling the pressures of high school can be tough on any teen, however, Velisa had to face other challenges. “It was very hard at school, because word slowly spread that I had to undergo breast surgery and it wasn’t like I was made fun of, but people brushed it off. They would only ask because they were curious, or feel obligated to, not really because they cared. I wasn’t trying to milk compliments, but it was just one of those things. Above all, what hurt the most was the misconception that people thought it was a ‘boob job’. That was annoying, because there’s a big difference between what I had and a ‘boob job’.”

For Velisa’s parents, Siya and Beaulah, their courageous little girl’s journey was an excruciating time. “To see your child in such an amount of pain is awful,” said Beaulah. “But she was just incredible, she didn’t really complain, she was so strong! As her mom, I just wanted to take Velisa’s pain away, I felt I would rather trade places. My husband and I did go through that question asking phase – what could we as parents have done differently, is it because I didn’t breast feed, etc. But we had to be strong for our child.”

According to Velisa, she was quite concerned for her family during this intense time. “I worried more about my parents and my brother, Anda (14) because you could see they were strong for me. Above everything our family is very spiritual and God definitely helped us through this journey.”

Velisa encourages young women to educate themselves about cancer and recognise that breast cancer doesn’t just affect older women. “Early detection is key. The biggest thing with my generation is not that we don’t know things, it is more that we are very ignorant. One dismisses things until it happens to you. Be aware of your body! Anything can happen at any time and it’s important to take care of yourself!”

After everything this youngster has been through, Velisa’s advise to the youth of today is: “Don’t let anyone tell you that what you’re going through is nothing, don’t let anyone tell you to get over it and move on, because they don’t know what it takes to go through this or what it takes to be you. Allow yourself to digest what’s going on. Allow yourself to feel every emotion and know you are strong and an amazing individual. Surround yourself with people who have nothing but support and love for you. Pray a lot, because God is phenomenal. And young women especially, love and embrace your body!

Velisa is expected to undergo a fourth surgery around October 2015.

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