Lebogang Mthembu candidly speaks about her mental health struggles after being diagnosed with breast cancer at the tender age of 24.
Lebogang Mthembu (28) lives in Vosloorus, Gauteng with her grandmother, Agnes. She has a nine-year-old son, Karabo.
At 19 Lebo gave birth to Karabo in June 2013 and started breastfeeding. She says her left breast produced a lot of milk and became painful to breastfeed, so she went to the local clinic in October. “I was told to stop breastfeeding; they also noted how the veins in my left breast were popping out. So, I only breastfed for five months. Once my milk dried up, I noticed a lump. I went back, and they said it was a blocked milk duct and gave me painkillers and vitamins.”
Since Lebo’s paternal grandmother, Agnes, had breast cancer in 2007 and then again in 2012, Lebo informed the clinic that she has family history of cancer, so she was referred for a mammogram in December.
Lebo had a mammogram and ultrasound in early 2014 and was told everything was okay but she should come back in a year. In 2015, she was told all was good. “In 2016, the lump was still there so I decided to go to another hospital for a mammogram. Once again, I was told all was fine and I must come back in a year.
In June 2017 I went and was again given the all-clear. But then in October my left breast swelled up and I was booked for a biopsy and in November I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 24.”
Not emotionally ready
“After going for so many scans year after year, I thought if it happens, it happens and that I was emotionally and mentally ready. But I was wrong. When I got the news, I couldn’t take it. My world just broke. I was a young mother with a four-year-old son and we were living in between my grandmothers’ houses and now I had to face treatment,” Lebo explains.
Lebo was prescribed a gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist injection before chemotherapy to protect her ovaries in case she still wanted more children; she gets this every three months and will continue it till 2027.
Chemotherapy started in December 2017 until May 2018. In June Lebo underwent a bilateral mastectomy. “Because my grandmother’s cancer came back five years later in the other breast, this is why I asked for a bilateral mastectomy. I didn’t want to take any chances. Plus, I thought what would I do with one breast?”
Reconstruction was offered to the 24-year-old but only at a later stage. To this day, she hasn’t heard back from the hospital regarding her reconstruction. In August, radiation commenced for six weeks. Thereafter Lebo underwent 16 cycles of trastuzumab. However, she could only complete 10 cycles due to a heart value being damaged by radiation. She was also prescribed tamoxifen for 10 years which she is still currently taking.
Drinking to numb the pain
At the time of her diagnosis, Lebo was working part-time and studying office admin and found it hard to balance everything. “I had to take a lot of time off work and took breaks from my studies. After chemo I would come home and still need to be a mother to my son. It was hard,” she says.
She admits that she used alcohol as a coping mechanism and would drink before going to chemotherapy. “I would drink to just numb the pain. The nurses noticed and would tell me that I shouldn’t be drinking while on chemotherapy. I told them that it was my way to cope so they referred me to a counsellor, but I never went.”
Unfortunately, during this time, Lebo’s mental health decreased. Not having breasts affected her mentally and emotionally. “I can only look at myself naked in the mirror if I have a shirt on and I never let my ex-boyfriend see my scars. I feel less of a woman.” She would self-harm and continued drinking. Both her grandmothers told her that she had a drinking problem, but she never saw it as one.
“My maternal grandmother, Annie, would hide my alcohol away from me and would do everything for me, to try and help me cope. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2019 and this affected me tremendously, she was like my mother,” Lebo says tearfully.
To add fuel to the fire, in 2020 Lebo lost her job due to COVID and in September she attempted suicide. She was diagnosed with a mood and personality disorder and is being treated by a psychiatrist. “She told me that my drinking is a problem and has referred me to The South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.”
Lebo hasn’t sought help yet but says she isn’t dependent on alcohol anymore. “I don’t binge drink anymore and I can go a week without it.”
Searching for the light
Lebo attributes her mental health to an unstable upbringing and the fact that she still hasn’t fully accepted that she had breast cancer. “I have avoided having relationships as I then have to explain what has happened and I can’t deal with that,” she says.
Thankfully, her aunt, Irene, made her an appointment at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic, so she can finally have breast reconstruction. “My son is really excited that I’ll be getting reconstruction, he ran around saying ‘Mommy is going to get new breasts.’ I’m hoping that it will make me feel better about myself though I’m worried how it will affect my job, having to take time off. I didn’t have a job for a year during COVID and I got this job last year August, so I really just want to build my career and give my son a good life.”
We wish Lebo all the best in her journey of recovery and through The Breast Health Foundation, counselling has also be offered to ensure she gets the help she needs.
Photos by LuciaB Photography | Facebook @luciabphoto
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