Julia Shabalala was only 23 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had just finished law school and started her articles at a top law firm, when her world got turned upside down. With no history of breast cancer in her family, the diagnosis came as a complete shock! She shares her story of tragedy and triumph to inspire other young women on this difficult journey.
She was diagnosed on 15 August last year after she discovered a lump in her breast. She wasn’t worried about breast cancer as she had a history of getting Fibroadenomas – the most common benign tumor of the breast. “The diagnosis came as a complete shock. My first thought was, I am way too young to have cancer! Plus, we don’t have a history of cancer in our family. I had my life planned out. I wanted to make my mark as a lawyer, I want to get married and start a family! My world came crashing down on me. A whirlwind of biopsies, mammograms and countless visits to oncologist and doctor’s rooms were to follow.”
Julie dressed up for her chemotherapy treatments. She decided that she didn’t want to look like some of the other patients who were wearing tracksuits and a scarf to cover their heads. “I decided to do the opposite. I spent a lot of time looking my best for every appointment paying attention to my make-up and my hair. I refused to let chemo dictate what I had to look like for six months and I did not want people seeing my battle with cancer written all over my face, because I did not care for sympathy at the time. I wanted to keep my life as normal as I could,” she added.
Being diagnosed at such a young age and at a time in her life when she was ready to start building her career, was a huge setback. “Pretty much everything in my life was planned before my diagnosis, even the age that I would have liked to start a family. My boyfriend and I love children and we decided that I should become a mommy when I turned 28. However, once we realised that we’d have to wait for five years post chemo, surgery and radiation, I was shattered. It did not matter how young any doctor said I was, I had my own plans for my life. No one understood the extent of this disappointment except my partner. I was grateful for the chance at life but it annoyed me tremendously when some of my disappointments were downplayed all in the name of being lucky to be alive. Yes, I was lucky, but I was also upset by the number of unexpected changes I’d have to make to my life,” Julia said.
Immediately after diagnosis, Dr Carol Benn recommended that she visited a fertility clinic to save her eggs to ensure that she can start a family. “I must warn other ladies that the cost for harvesting eggs is very high. Fortunately, my family could cover the R40 000. I will forever be grateful for this advice and even though my plans were delayed, God’s delays are not denials.”
At the time of diagnosis Julia was involved in a long-term relationship and from day one her boyfriend was very supportive. As her journey got increasingly difficult, his support never waivered. He helped her shave off all her hair when the time came and showed up for as many chemotherapy sessions as he could. “Even when I got emotional, he would just hold my hand through one of my many crying sessions. He is a very positive person and his attitude rubbed off on me. My best friend also joined me when I had to go for chemo and we turned the appointments into lunch dates. Those moments of just chatting made chemo sessions go by much quicker,” states Julia. She also emphasises the importance of her supporting family. The times when she was sick, nauseous and just felt drained, they stepped up to take care of her. Living with a cancer patient was something the whole family had never had to experience, so they also needed to adapt and learn how to deal with her demands.
Today, after finishing treatment and having undergone a single mastectomy, Julia considers herself a survivor! “This ordeal has changed me and I am a completely transformed person. I want every young woman to know that you are never too young to get this disease and that you can still be amazing and gorgeous, even after diagnosis.
Cancer can be beaten. It is not the decider, we are! Yes, it is not the easiest thing to experience, but it can be overcome, ” she says. Her coping mechanisms included prayer and writing to the disease under the alias “Girl On The Chemo Couch”. She says that writing about her ordeal and her feelings towards cancer kept her motivated and feeling in control. One day she hopes to publish these letters. Her plans for the future include, but are not limited to, pursuing her legal career and promoting women’s health.
Cancer has made me value my life and the people in it. I appreciate my health and it has taught me not to plan so far in advance. I live in the moment and enjoy life because everything can change in an instance.
Written by Anelle Hamilton