SA women take fight against breast cancer to Mount Everest

To the group of women who attempted a punishing ascent to a major milestone on the world’s highest peak, the dangers of reaching the Mount Everest Base Camp were no match for their cause. The brave women – Nqobile Mazibuko, Ntokozo Dludla, Soso Thamae, Refilwe Sedumedi and Henrietta van Kramberg – are members of a Breast Health Foundation/Streetschool Development Journeys project: Everest Base Camp 2016: One Step at a Time.

Each of the daring women has a unique breast cancer survival story but they were united in their desire to do something extraordinary to celebrate their individual journeys and prove that there is life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. They also aimed to raise breast cancer awareness, targeting women from all walks of life.

Everest presents several treacherous challenges like deep, hidden crevasses, potential and unpredictable avalanches, violent winds, sub zero temperatures, in addition to extremely low oxygen levels, and has claimed over 200 lives since 1922.

To prepare for the endeavour, the women began rigorous training months before making the climb that commenced on April 17. They’ve embraced the regime with guts and commitment. Despite some setbacks, all returned home safely. Here they share their individual journeys with Buddies for Life.

Ntokozo Dludla: Respecting the elements


As one of the first black South African breast cancer survivors to summit the highest mountain in Africa – Kilimanjaro – Ntokozo Dludla is acquainted with approximately 5,895 metres above sea level. But she never thought that she would hike up Earth’s highest mountain. “I never knew I was going to be offered a huge mountain like Everest. I had to grab the opportunity, not only because it was for a good cause, but also for breast cancer awareness and supporting those who lost their loved ones.”

Ntokozo has conquered many life mountains and, although her trek to Mount Everest in Nepal was physically challenging, she admits “it was a once in a lifetime experience.”

On day six of the trek, Ntokozo started to experience symptoms of altitude sickness.

A person with altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can experience headache, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite.

“I was so nauseous and wanted to vomit, but couldn’t. I ate something minty and then had some soup. My body and my legs were fine; I wasn’t feeling tired at all. After lunch the temperature started to drop. When we started walking again I decided to take it really slow,” Ntokozo explained.

About one kilometre from where lunch was served, not realising that her body started to shake, medical personnel who trekked with the group told Ntokozo that she couldn’t continue. “We were in the middle of the mountain. Because of our setting and the unstable surface, I had to walk two more hours, despite feeling weak, to where the chopper could land safely. I’m not sure how I managed that walk, but I kept in mind that help was on the way and that was my motivation.”

Ntokozo’s expectations included to reach Base Camp together as one group. “I was able to see Base Camp, but unfortunately was unable to reach my goal, because of the altitude sickness.”

She was flown back to Katmandu where she was hospitalised and treated for severe dehydration.

“Being evacuated from the mountain was an unexpected turn of events,” Ntokozo said. “I learned that you can plan for the future, but God’s plan will prevail. I didn’t expect my journey to end like that, but knew I had to endure it. I don’t regret that it happened, because it was part of that journey for me.”

Comparing Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest, Ntokozo confessed that Kili is easy. “Kili is nothing! Everest is something else – I won’t go back to Mount Everest.”

This well-known community educator for the Breast Health Foundation acknowledged that training plays a big role, but says no matter the preparation, the trek remains a massive challenge. “Even the fittest people who walked with our group had difficulty with the hike… You should be fit, but anything can happen there.”

For Ntokozo Mount Everest was not only a learning experience, but also a spiritual journey. “It’s something magnificent that God created. To experience the beauty and wonder of this mountain just brings you closer to your Creator. Everyone who walks there comes out different; that mountain definitely changed me!”

Ntokozo’s advice to people considering hiking Mount Everest is do it! “It’s an adventure where you learn a lot about yourself. Whether you reach Base Camp or not, it’s about taking a step of braveness out of your comfort zone.”

Nqobile Mazibuko: An Elite Adventurer

After her 2010 breast cancer diagnosis, Nqobile Mazibuko approached recovery much like she has approached other situations in her life with a strength and determination to overcome obstacles set before her and not let them deter her from doing what she has set out to do.

At the age of 50, Nqobile was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. With the words, “I hope it is not what I think it is” from her doctor, Nqobile’s life changed forever. She had a mastectomy to her right breast. Some of her lymph nodes were also removed. Nqobile has been in remission since and continues to drink her Tamoxifen.

Mount Everest is a daunting prospect for even the most accomplished mountaineer, and Nqobile had absolutely no mountaineering experience. “I was only introduced to hiking three years ago,” she explained.

The physical preparation for Everest would be intense for anyone setting out to accomplish such a tremendous feat. As part of her physical training preparation, Nqobile went to the gym daily. She also trained between the hills of Westcliff and sustained her regular meditation ritual.

But for this proud business woman it was just another mountain to climb. Nqobile beat breast cancer and she was determined to do the same with Everest.

“Before we left for our trip, I always said to people, if I managed chemo for six months, what is Mount Everest?”

The total trek to Base Camp is 60 km. As the eldest woman in her group, Nqobile’s pace up the mountain was slow, yet steady. “My expectations before we left South Africa was hardship. The first day was manageable, but every day after that, the hike got harder. I was on a mission to get to Base Camp, I wanted to make sure I get there.”

As a result of sarcoidosis, Nqobile has only partial use of her lungs. But she had never let her physical limitations stop her and continued to push ahead.

She started to battle with altitude sickness and said the higher they climbed, the worse the side effects got. “At some point my oxygen level was very low, however, the doctor gave me the okay,” explained Nqobile. “I really struggled with swollen, teary eyes – but I never experienced any pain at any time.”

As soon as Nqobile reached the beginning of Base Camp, at 58 km, she had to be evacuated by helicopter on account of altitude sickness. Despite not going all the way, Nqobile said that she reached her target. “The altitude challenges I encountered clearly got the best of me, but I am satisfied with my result, I reached my target – Base Camp. It was an amazing opportunity, I’m truly thankful for the experience.”

According to Nqobile she won’t ascent Everest again, but might consider Kilimandjaro next time.

Soso Thame: Taking on Everest

Renowned as a breast cancer activist and former Miss United Nations South Africa finalist, Soso Thamae is an influential woman who has conquered many of life’s challenges one step at a time. Her firm believe that we are all born with the ability to make a difference, was her motivation to participate in the EBC 2016: One step at a time campaign.

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, Soso realised that, metaphorically, she already climbed a big mountain.

“The whole breast cancer experience has taught me that nothing in life is guaranteed, circumstances can change in a spark! But what does not change is one’s inner believe, strength and faith to keep going. When I was approached to climb Mount Everest to increase breast cancer awareness I simply couldn’t refuse,” Soso explained.

Soso is familiar with elevations of up to 3,482 metres, since she has climbed the highest mountain in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana mountain in Lesotho.

“Unfortunately, on my way to Tengboche – a village located at 3,867 metres – I injured my knee. When we reached the campsite, I was just too exhausted to continue. I have fallen ill from altitude sickness and had to be evacuated with a helicopter. I was really disappointed that I could not continue with my journey.”

According to Soso, although the climb was difficult, it was nothing compared to the severe pain a woman with breast cancer would feel. She said that training for Mount Everest is very important, however, you never know what curve balls life is going to throw at you.

“It is how you deal with them that define who you are. I am a stronger person since going through cancer. I have a great sense of optimism and joy for life, and I believe in living. Perhaps one day I will go back to Everest to finish what I’ve started!”


After a protracted battle with metastatic breast cancer, Sally Roberts passed away in October 2015. She was 45 years old. Sally was a driven professional with a secret love for crafting - working with natural elements, making jewellery. When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, she remained dedicated in her work and in her will to fight her illness. She remained a brave, iron-willed woman, even throughout her final months. Sally was a great example of living life one day at a time, one step at a time. Carrying a small placard of Sally up Mount Everest, Refilwe and Henrietta held the lovely photo of Sally to flap in the wind at Base Camp. Sally touched many lives while on Earth. Her big smile on Everest will continue to be a lasting memory of her positiveness and bring hope for many fighting breast cancer.

Refilwe Sedumedi: Reaching the top, overcoming the obstacles

Refilwe Sedumedi, or Fifi as she is fondly called, is a master of setting a goal and achieving it. When she decided to climb Mount Everest, there was no turning back. And, true to form, even the world’s highest peak was unable to stop this relentless breast cancer survivor.

“I am a mother of two and a real fashionista, who loves my high heels. Several people underestimated me and thought I would fail, but I proved them wrong.”

According to Refilwe the daily climb was extremely tough and would last around seven to eight hours. “It was an unrelenting misery, a steep climb-from-hell. I broke down several times,” she said, just laughing about it now. “At times I questioned my sanity! At every curve, I was hoping for any sort of reprieve from the slow burning in my legs.”

Refilwe acknowledged that it wasn’t anything she had envisioned when she signed on, but said that it had been a unique experience.

“I couldn’t have dreamt up the magic of the nature that surrounded us for days on end. Just when you thought your eyes would never see such beauty, just when you thought your ears would never hear such serenity, you’d round the next corner and be kidnapped again by the creation of the universe.”

Despite the “terrible food” and the chorus of coughs ringing out in the hallways at night, or the strength Refilwe needed to muster to peel her body off of a hard bed in the morning, she never gave up.

“I had to harness courage a dozen times a day, but I knew I was the youngest of the cancer-surviving members of our group. Plus, I always encourage my kids to never give up, I needed to set an example!”

Reaching Base Camp and standing at an altitude of 5,364 meters, is described by Refilwe as euphoric. “I found the day of getting to Everest Base Camp itself, the hardest. I felt so relieved, even with depleted energy levels. It’s like standing in a snow globe, where the magnificent snow-peaked mountains, the icefall and the imposing presence of Everest loom before you. It’s something I will never forget, from the first glimpse of the magnificent view to the congratulatory atmosphere all around me.”

For Refilwe the climb meant much more than a mountaineering accomplishment. She was climbing for all breast cancer survivors. She wanted to spread cancer awareness, but, more importantly, she wanted to show cancer survivors that nothing is impossible. She wanted to give breast cancer patients the will to live.

Another Breast Cancer survivor, Henrietta van Kramberg – an IT expert in Johannesburg – completed the twelve-day trek to Everest Base Camp. She said the adventure showed her again how strong she is mentally.

Henrietta was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Today she is in complete remission. “We all have different types of Everest peaks in our lives. I think next time I might attempt the real peak of Everest.”

Written by Elsje Smit.