Marlene Wilson – a blind 69-year-old – will embark on an expedition to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to raise funds for breast cancer.
Guided by her godchild, Jolene, they aim to make their way to the summit, 5,895m above the plains of the Kenya-Tanzania border.
She says she is determined to make it to the top.
“I’ve always liked a challenge,” she said. “I’ve also always liked to prove to the world that just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.”
At the age of 8, Marlene was injured in a hit & run accident when she was struck by a car. She suffered injuries to her head, which resulted in very poor eyesight until the 1980’s. She then started losing her sight completely to Retinitis Pigmentosa – a chronic hereditary eye disease characterised by black pigmentation and gradual degeneration of the retina.
In 1983, Marlene attended the Blind Rehab Centre where she was taught basic life skills for the visually impaired. This is where she learned to ride a tandem bicycle. She then bought her own tandem bicycle and then started cycling seriously. She participated in races such as the Cape Argus. In her third Cape Argus race, Marlene and her partner won a gold medal. She has also participated in the World Corporate Games where she represented First National Bank – she received two silver medals.
In 1995, Marlene rode in a ride for peace, from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in Russia and successfully completed the race. Upon her return to South Africa she competed in the South African Blind Tandem event in a national sporting event, where she won three gold medals.
Since then, Marlene took part in several cycling events nationally including the 94.7 cycle challenge, which she still rides to this day. This year she will be riding for FreeMe, a rehabilitation centre for indigenous wildlife based in the north of Johannesburg.
At the age of 67, Marlene decided it was time to learn to swim. She now swims twice a week at least 30 to 40 lengths and can finally enjoy her pool at home. A year later this active optimist has learned to groom dogs and assists a friend twice a week in her grooming business.
Marlene decided that she had to do something spectacular before she turns 70 in 2016 and that is to fulfil her dream of climbing Kilimanjaro.
“When I learned that I was going to be blind, it was a very big shock! It was a bitter pill for me to swallow, because I thought how am I going to live the rest of my life not being able to see and having to rely on the whole world and their brother – it was extremely devastating! I went through a lot of emotions of anger and asking why me… Ultimately, I decided to try and do the best I can with what I’ve got.”
On the 4th October 2009, Marlene felt a lump, the size of a marble. A mammogram, biopsy and four days later she was told she had breast cancer.
“As a young person I was always terrified of cancer and I thought the worst. But when I was diagnosed I was okay with it. There were emotions, although I realised I faced a bigger challenge – which for me was blindness, so when I was diagnose I did what I had to do.”
The lump was removed in November 2009 at the Breast Care Centre of Excellence at Netcare Milpark Hospital. A month later Marlene started with radium treatment. She underwent 35 treatments until beginning of February 2010 and suffered severe burn wounds.
“The radium was very challenging and toward the end I was very badly burnt. I just went along and thought this is what it’s supposed to be like – my doctor was very upset. The last day I went for treatment I stood in that change room and put my head against the wall, just cried and said thank God this is over!”
Now that treatment have ended Marlene says she has fears, but it doesn’t have anything to do with cancer.
“I have no fear that cancer will bear its ugly head somewhere – it is just what it is! I still have a fear of heights so early next year I will go skydiving – that in itself will help me overcome the fear of heights. For me if I have a fear, I need to face that fear head-on!”
Marlene is now cancer free, however she still takes Tamoxifen. She meets with her oncologist annually at the beginning of the year and has her bloods done twice a year.
Marlene’s message to women out there is: “Women need to be more vigilant and check their bodies regularly! Do the things you have to do – you can avoid dying from breast cancer. We take a lot of things for granted – especially our health. Take care of yourself and look after your body, because it’s the only one you’ve got!”