Even though cancer has taken the lives of many people, there are countless survivors who are battling each day to fight and save the lives of others. At least that is what breast cancer survivor Louisa Mthembu is doing. We hear how she is doing this.
Seventeen years ago, Louisa (65), or Gogo as she is fondly called, found out she had breast cancer. “One morning, during October 1998, I was doing my regular self-exam when I felt a knot in my right breast. My daughter was really concerned and forced me to go to the doctor. I didn’t want to because I didn’t experience any pain or discomfort.”
After her surgery on 14 May 1999, with 16 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy later, Gogo won her battle. It was not an easy journey, but with the support of her family and her faith in God, she powered through it.
But then, two years later, the cancer came back. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen again. I constantly complained of pain on the right side of my chest. Because I was going in for regular check-ups, the doctors found the cancer right away,” Gogo explained. Overcoming cancer this second time was more difficult than the first time – not that fighting cancer is ever an easy battle. “Treatment was different this time. The cancer was eliminated with another six rounds of chemotherapy. I received the ‘Red devil’ drug and I experienced all the awful side effects.” As Gogo was taking chemo, her hair started to fall out gradually. She was extremely tired and struggled with nausea and vomiting. “Everything was realities that had to be understood one step at a time. Fortunately, I didn’t have the same physical effect that getting a mastectomy had,” said Gogo. Once again, she could defeat another hurdle life had thrown her.
Gogo did not want any reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy. Through the Reach for Recovery programme, she received an external breast prosthesis. Four years ago, Gogo went back to her multidisciplinary team who treated her from the start. She wanted her left breast removed. “The motivation behind my decision was the obvious changes to my body when gaining and losing weight,” explained Gogo. “I didn’t like how the one breast was bigger and the prosthesis was just one size – it didn’t look good! After an in-depth discussion, my surgery was done at Helen Joseph Hospital. I continue to wear external breast prostheses.”
According to Gogo, she is not scared that the cancer will return. “Even if it does come back, I know I will do the right thing. If my medical team says go for chemo, I will go, because I know it cures.”
Gogo is a proud mother of three children and eight grandchildren. She is well-known as breast cancer community educator of the greater Johannesburg area for the Breast Health Foundation (BHF). Gogo has been involved with BHF since its inception in 2002. “I was part of Breast Health Foundation since the beginning. I loved my job! I retired in 2014 when my youngest grandchild was born and I needed to babysit him. I miss the job very much.”
Though she retired, Gogo didn’t slow down and is still as compassionate as ever. Her daily routine includes an early gym session – “I love aerobics,” said Gogo. “I’m also a sales woman by day – during the summer I make ice lollies to sell in the community. People continue to call me for counselling and advice, so I still get to make a difference. Next year when my grandchild goes to the crèche, I want to join a lady in my community who runs a HIV/AIDS awareness programme. Breast cancer and Aids counselling often goes hand in hand, so I’m certain I can help in this sector too.”
Gogo is in complete remission. She visits her doctor every six months, as she strongly believes early detection saves lives. “I’m allowed to visit the doctor once every year, but I want to go every six months. If I just go annually, maybe my doctor and I miss something and then it could be too late.” Gogo’s next check-up will be in July.
Gogo recommends that women must check their breasts every month around the time of their menstrual cycle. “If they have had a hysterectomy they must check their breasts every month on the date they used to have their period. They must do it!”