Marlene Wilson talks about going completely blind in her forties, getting breast cancer in her sixties, her love for tandem cycling, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Marlene Wilson (75) lives in Alberton, Gauteng with her wife of one year, Desiree.
Hit and run
When Marlene was 8-years-old she was run down by a car on her way to school. “I remember the school gardener ran out and tried to chase the car. He then picked me up and took me to the office and I was kept in the sick room the whole day. I didn’t even tell my mom when she came home. It was the neighbour who alerted my mom by asking how I was doing after the accident; my mom nearly had a stroke,” Marlene recalls.
“Back then they didn’t really know much about anything and only thirty years later, in the 80s, was it discovered that my optic nerve had been damaged in the hit and run. It affected my schooling, especially in high school, as it was hard to read from the board and I had to borrow other kid’s books. Needless to say, Standard 8 was good enough then, so I left school and started working,” Marlene explains.
“When it was discovered that my optic nerve was damaged, I finally knew what was wrong with my eyesight. The specialist told me that I will go completely blind and had to prepare myself. My direct vision went first and then I lost my peripheral vision too as I was also diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (a group of rare, genetic disorders that involve a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina) and macular degeneration (causes loss in the centre of the field of vision).”
Blind rehabilitation centre
When Marlene heard this news, at the age of 38, she boldly decided to go to a blind rehabilitation centre to prepare for her life as a blind person. At this time, she could still see a bit.
“It’s quite daunting news to hear that you will be blind. I thought, what is going to happen to me? Who is going to look after me? My mom won’t be around forever. I was there for three months and I was taught to cook and do all sorts of things, one of them being tandem cycling.”
At times, Marlene did feel sorry for herself asking why this happened to her. “But then I soon realised, why can’t it happen to me? Why should it happen to someone else? I just needed to deal with it and find the best way aroundit. It wasn’t easy; my mother was distraught, so I had to put my fears aside and be strong for her.”
And Marlene did just that, she continued working and made the best of her situation by getting various guide dogs and adapting.
By this time, tandem cycling had become a great hobby of Marlene’s, with her competing in many races, such as the 94.7 Cycle Race and the Germiston Classic to name but a few.
Marlene and Ian Martin, a tandem pilot, won the gold medal in the 1993 Cape Argus Blind Tandem section in a time of 3 hours and 14 minutes. They decided to compete in the Cape Argus again in 2020, twenty-seven years later, and won gold again.
She also took part in an international peace ride (three-week cycle tour) from Moscow to St. Petersburg in Russia.
Breast cancer diagnosis
In 2009, Marlene was exercising in her garage, lifting weights and stretching when she felt a lump in her breast. “I knew it was strange as it wasn’t there before. I phoned my doctor straight away telling him I need to have a mammogram. Once the mammogram was done, I was informed that I must come back for a biopsy the next day. A week later, I was sitting in a breast specialist’s office discussing treatment,” Marlene explains.
Marlene was diagnosed with hormone positive breast cancer at age 63. She first underwent a lumpectomy and then had 30-odd radiation sessions and then was on tamoxifen for seven years. “I didn’t suffer any side effects and if I did, I was too stupid to realise,” Marlene jokes.
“I always feared getting breast cancer while living on my own, and now I was in that exact position.” But thanks to Marlene’s winning attitude and a good circle of friends, she got through it.
In 2015, Marlene decided she wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, so she phoned her goddaughter, Jolene, who had climbed it before and asked if she would climb it again. The response was positive and so the training commenced; Marlene exercised three times a week and did a lot of walking in Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve.
“I had two to three Sherpas with me on the climb, and I would leave before the rest of the group and get way back after them at night. It was about seven to eight hours’ a day I would be climbing; it wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve chosen to do,” the 75-year-old says.
Unfortunately, at 5000m, only 800m from the summit, Marlene got altitude sickness and had to be brought down. “I was shattered and felt I had let down the whole team who had sponsored me. It took me a long time to get over the disappointment.”
After having altitude sickness, Marlene got a thrombosis and her breast specialist was phoned to see if she could stop taking tamoxifen, which she did and was put on blood thinners.
Getting married at 74
Finding love at such a late stage, took Marlene by surprise. “It took me 74 years to be mature enough to finally get married. Desiree and I got married on my 74th birthday; it was a small ceremony at our house.”
Marlene met Desiree in 2012; they were part of a group of 14 friends that would go away for weekends. It was only in 2019 that a romantic relationship formed.
Marlene goes on to say that even though she has encountered many life obstacles, she knew she couldn’t be the victim of her circumstances and only she could make the change and make do with what she had.
She would still like to do a tandem sky-dive and re-attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, though do an easier route than last time. However, Desiree is not so keen on the idea.
Images by Chantal Drummond Photography | chantaldphoto.co.za
MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams
Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the firstname.lastname@example.org