Nonhlanhla Sephula – Ploughing back

Nonhlanhla Sephula tells her story of how breast cancer inspired her to start Risima Foundation so she could spread the hope.

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Nonhlanhla Sephula (53) lives in Pretoria, Gauteng with her three sons.

In June 2021, Nonhlanhla and her sons were celebrating a birthday at a restaurant when she felt a lump in her left breast. She told her sons and assured them she would go to the GP on Monday. The GP referred her for a mammogram.

“I admit I was one of the naughty ones; at 50 years old I had never gone for a mammogram,” Nonhlanhla says. A biopsy was needed and confirmed Stage 2 hormone positive breast cancer.

“The results were delivered over the phone. I was with my sons, so I put the phone on speaker, so we could all hear. We were all quiet for some time and then I cried. I never had cancer in my family so fear overtook and I thought of my death; my sons only had me to take care of them so that was a massive fear.”

The mother regrouped and started with the next steps. She was referred to an oncologist but wasn’t happy with her. “It felt like she put all the responsibility on me, she needed more information from my biopsy and told me to go back and get it. I explained to her that I have never heard of cancer, so it would be best for her to request the info directly from them. Once the info was received, the receptionist phoned me and said a script will be sent to me. No explanation of what the script was for or the plan of treatment,” Nonhlanhla explains.

Second opinion and treatment

Nonhlanhla didn’t even look at the script and started looking for a new doctor. She then found a breast specialist who helped her on a weekend and waived the consultation fee due to Nonhlanhla not having medical aid.

“She asked if I had children and setup a Zoom meeting the following day, so she could explain the treatment process to my sons. Thankfully, she calmed us and explained that I wasn’t going to die as it was only Stage 2 and a lazy cancer that is treatable.”

Nonhlanhla was put on a hormone-blocker injection (leuprorelin) for her to go into menopause. “I wasn’t working at the time and had to pay R4500 for this injection.” She was also prescribed tamoxifen which she will be on for five years. The treatment would control her cancer, as her cancer was hormone-driven, until she could afford surgery.

For a year, she went for three-monthly check-ups. Thankfully, mid-2022, Nonhlanhla found a job which offered medical aid, so she could now have surgery. By this time, the tumour had shrunk.

“I was honest with the scheme, informing them I had breast cancer and needed surgery and radiation. Thankfully, there was no waiting period.”

In February 2023, Nonhlanhla had a lumpectomy as well as reconstruction to achieve symmetry. The injection would only be needed again if she started menstruating, and she continues taking tamoxifen. In April, radiation commenced with 17 sessions in total and last year September, Nonhlanhla was told she was cancer free.

Biggest lessons learnt

When Nonhlanhla started treatment, her eldest son moved back in with his mom and brothers to offer his support.

“I consider myself a strong person but sometimes this isn’t a good thing as it can be a misconception that I don’t need help. In my sons’ minds I had this under control as I have always had things under control, but the truth is I didn’t. I learnt that I needed to let people help me, even though I was so used to doing everything myself. Looking back now, I recognise that after surgery and radiation I should have been resting, instead on working.”

Nonhlanhla also sees the favour she had. “For the past 15 years I had been self-employed. Then when I was diagnosed I decided to look for a job as I was under financial strain and now also had breast cancer. Within three months, I got a job and started in July 2022 and didn’t have to serve probation or undergo a waiting period to start the medical aid. Then last year I was retrenched. However, I still see it as a blessing as it served the purpose of me able to have surgery and radiation,” Nonhlanhla says. 

Starting Risima Foundation

Once Nonhlanhla was diagnosed, she started a foundation in 2021 called Risima Foundation (Risima means ploughing back). However, she only started full force last year October once she had fully recovered.

“The aim of the foundation is to educate, especially the black community, as what kills us is lack of knowledge. I mean I only went for a mammogram at 50, it’s not supposed to be like that. I was also lucky enough to get medical aid but what about those people who can’t afford it. Then, the second part is to give hope; to me hope is giving back to people who can’t afford life-changing treatment.”

Nonhlanhla did various radio stations interviews, promoting her foundation. A radio station even purchased a drawing her youngest son drew of the family; the money went into the foundation. She hired a mobile mammogram unit which was stationed at shopping malls.

“The response was overwhelming and so many people contacted me to help them,” the 53-year-old recalls.

However, it was to be a 14-year-old deaf and mute girl from Rustenburg, who had an open sore on her breast. Nonhlanhla arranged for the girl and her aunt to travel to JHB for a biopsy and then she underwent surgery for the benign fibroadenoma. All medical procedures were done free of charge by the medical team.

Nonhlanhla with the 14-year-old girl who received the much-needed surgery.

“My next goal is to get her back into school as she stopped going two years ago due the school saying she is sick. Even if she doesn’t go to school, I want her to learn a skill with her hands, whether it be sewing, knitting or anything to give her purpose.”

The support of my boys

“I’m thankful to my friends and three boys for the support they have given me; the support from my boys is amazing. They even chose my outfit for this cover shoot and I think their choice of outfit is beautiful.”

Photos by Mandy Steenkamp Photography | Follow @mandysteenkampphotography

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.

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.
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