The silver lining to a mastectomy for Iola Laranja-da Cunha

No matter how you sugar coat it, a mastectomy remains a bitter pill to swallow. Of course you are eternally grateful that the affected tissue is removed and it saves your life. However, it remains a cruel verdict.

While fighting her own battle against breast cancer, Iola Laranja-da Cunha (36) talks openly with Buddies for Life about her experience and encourage other women to have regular breast examinations and do all they can to stay healthy.

Iola went through a dark gorge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009.  Shortly afterwards she underwent a mastectomy. Although Iola’s cancer was diagnosed at an early stage, the news has completely taken the wind out of her sails.

“It came as a complete shock and was unexpected, especially because I was so young and had no family history of cancer. I took part in the Avon Ithemba Walkathon with my sisters, Sam and Jessica. At the walkathon they handed out a bookmark that explained how every woman should self-examine her breasts. I took the bookmark home and I followed the instructions carefully. I found a hard pee sized lump, but I wasn’t too sure whether I should be concerned or not. I decided to wait a while and keep an eye on it. When it started to grow I knew that I needed to go to a doctor.

A mastectomy with breast reconstruction followed by radiation treatment and then chemotherapy is enough to test any woman’s strength and it’s no surprise that Iola after her treatment was digging deep to find inner strength.

“I suffered severe depression and complications of chemotherapy,” she recalls. “It was extremely hard for my mom to see me suffer. I knew she was afraid to lose me. I found it very difficult to see my family struggle with my diagnosis and they tried not to break down in front of me – it was a hard time for the entire family.”

“My oncologist informed us that new studies show that I should continue with my treatment for another five years, but I have decided to take a two year break from hormone therapy, as I really battle with the side effects of the anti-hormone treatment and my husband and I might also want to start a family.”

With her realistic outlook, Iola realises she might change her mind and continue with anti-hormone treatment, but she says she’ll worry about this step when the time comes. “One day at a time is definitely a good motto when diagnosed with cancer. Thinking too far ahead can increase your anxiety levels.”

Iola met her husband, Jorge, two years after her diagnoses and describes that moment as unbelievable. “I was lucky to find a man who understood what I had gone through and he accepted me with my scars and everything that went along with cancer treatment. His only concern is that I will live a long and happy life and he supports my decisions with much love and devotion. He is my best friend and the one that I can talk to when I begin to worry about the big C.”

Iola’s most difficult side effect she had to deal with was infertility.

“Infertility was probably the most difficult side effect that I had to deal with. I cried a lot and felt really resentful for a long time. Other 31 year olds were not dealing with these issues and I didn’t feel ready to make decisions about my fertility and my ability to have children in the future. I did a lot of research, spoke to my family, asked my doctor’s advice and saw a fertility specialist. In the end the only decision that made sense was to do whatever it took to save my life.”

Iola’s advice to other young women is to take part in events that promote women’s health, take your health seriously and know your body and have a positive attitude.

Most of the battle is won when your attitude is right.

Forthcoming, Iola is looking forward to a cancer free future. “I am also looking forward to a time when I hopefully don’t have to be on medication any longer. I am focused on my marriage. My ultimate goal in life is to enjoy every day and to show my gratitude to the people who were there for me when I needed it most. I would like to thank everyone for their support but especially my parents and my sisters.

Written by Elsje Beneke.