Super Survivors – Cindy Matthee and Zoleka Mandela

Femininity does not depend on breasts

A lot of women believe femininity is based in their breasts. Today I know this is not the complete truth – femininity depends on a lot more than two nipples.

When you lie in your man’s arms and he loves you even when you don’t have a hair on your head, when you don’t have a breast, you know that you can’t simply lose your femininity by losing your boobs.

These are the words of Cindy Matthee, who was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.

“I can’t remember the exact date when I was diagnosed, but I can remember the day I lost my breasts as if it was yesterday – it was on 20 February.”

I waited more than a year before seeing a doctor about the lumps in my left breast. I just knew I had breast cancer – seeking medical help would only confirm what I knew.

If I didn’t get pains in my hand, I would probably never have gone. By that time the cancer had already spread to my glands, says Cindy.

Her experience with breast cancer has given Cindy a new outlook on femininity and breasts, and this has moved her to write a book on the issue.

“My plan is to get women to send me photographs which depicts their relationship with their breasts. I will supplement these pictures with my own writing and free verse on how I experienced this life-changing battle.”

She already has a vast collection of selfies from women. Several women from as far as England has sent her pictures of their breasts. The youngest contribution will be from an 18 year old.

“And the very last pair of breasts in my book will be my husband Dawid’s. Because men are just as affected by breast cancer as women are. And our concept of femininity is formed by the men we love – more so than merely possessing a pair of breasts.”

Cindy has an extremely positive outlook on life, but this journey was no walk in the park.

“At times I really battled. But I have a very special friend on Facebook. We laugh together, we cry together. I don’t think she will ever know how much she has meant to me,” says Cindy.

“You can’t expect your family to carry the entire load for you. I’m just thankful that I live in a time where we have the internet. It gives me so much support.”

She has a message for other women who fights cancer with her: “Cancer is not a death sentence. While you fight it, you live. You can’t wait to live later.”

And living is exactly what she does. She has just returned after completing a 4×4 trip over Sani Pass with her husband. And the couple attended the recent Oppikoppi rock festival near Northam.

“We have always wanted to go, but we postponed it every time. And this time I told Dawid we are going!”

She says they were problably the oldest people there, but they enjoyed it as much as any of the youngsters.

Cindy calls Fochville her home town, but in the back of her mind she believes there is something wrong in the town she loves. “I don’t smoke, I don’t use hormones, I don’t have cancer in my genes. I believe it comes from my surroundings. I don’t have proof of this, but there is a lot of people with cancer in Fochville lately.”

But it does not affect her war against breast cancer. She has radiation to complete. But she believes she will win the battle.

“I have told my husband he can choose the size of my new breasts if they tell me I am cancer free by the end of the year. I only hope it won’t be EE’s!”

Written by Dirk Lotriet

Zoleka Mandela opens up about her battle of survival

Fully committed to her role as a mother and breast cancer survivor, Zoleka Zobuhle Mandela’s life is a story she believes will change many lives.

As a product of two legendary icons, former President of South Africa Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and freedom fighter, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Zoleka’s social responsibility is tremendously inspired by her grandparents and their passion to bring about change.

Zoleka discovered a lump in her left breast a little more than two years ago. On March 15, 2012, she was diagnosed with stage two-breast cancer. “At the time I was diagnosed, I didn’t know that I had been living with cancer for at least eight months,” she said.

Zoleka has lost two children: her daughter Zenani was killed in a car crash on the eve of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and her son Zenawe was born three months prematurely and lived for just two days.

Zoleka lost her son nine months prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer. She received medication from her doctor to help her milk dry up. Zoleka thought the prescribed medication caused the lump she initially felt in her breast. It was only after the second lump appeared that she realized something was wrong.

Zoleka consulted Dr. Carol-Ann Benn, a surgeon and breast specialist at Milpark hospital in Johannesburg, Gauteng. A biopsy was done after the diagnosis was established, to confirm stage two breast cancer.

Zoleka said when she was first diagnosed she refused treatment for three months. “I think I was in denial.” She feared the chemotherapy and surgery would mean she would be unable to be a healthy mother to her surviving son, Zwelami. Zoleka says it is a decision she regrets.

In July 2012, this young mother had a bilateral mastectomy and underwent 16 chemotherapy treatments in six months. “For me, what hurt me the most was I was losing my breasts and my breasts were my connection to my kids,’’ Zoleka said.

Zoleka describes her chemotherapy treatment as good and bad. “The red devil treatment was the worst.” The “Red Devil,” aka Adriamycin, is a chemotherapy agent used to treat many kinds of cancer, including breast cancer.

According to Zoleka, the Cytoxan treatments, which are often combined with two other drugs in a chemotherapy infusion to treat breast cancer, were much better. “The side effects were more bearable than the red devil.” Zoleka went to the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Center every Wednesday. She detailed her chemotherapy in video blogs and pictures too. “The aim is to release video journals to encourage cancer survivors,” she says.

Zoleka pays tribute to her grandmother Winnie, who was by her side through much of her cancer treatment. “Having the name I have, means there is a fabulous support structure.” Throughout her interview, Zoleka introduces us to a softer, incredibly loving Winnie Mandela. A very happy Zoleka continues to say that her grandmother was very supportive. “She is very proud of me, and I honor and cherish that so much.”

Advised by her medical team, Zoleka went to a fertility clinic to save her eggs so she could possibly try for a family in the future. With her large brown eyes cast downward, she talks movingly about how heartbreaking it was for her to come to terms with the fact that with a bilateral mastectomy, she would never be able to breastfeed again, should she become pregnant.

Zoleka has a man in her life, he is known as Thierry Bashala. When asked about his role and experience during Zoleka’s chemotherapy treatments and battle with breast cancer, Thierry admitted he had to get educated. “Cancer was a new word,” he said. Thierry described Zoleka’s breast cancer ordeal as a steep learning curve. “One takes life for granted until something big comes along, then one realizes the value of life,” he said.

Zoleka finished her chemo early in 2013. She described her last treatment as very emotional. “I don’t know if people look forward to their last chemo session, but I was quite devastated. It felt like a loss all over again, I was crying.” Zoleka asked herself what is this cancer free life?

During her time of chemotherapy, she started writing a book, When Hope Whispers. Throughout this influential autobiography, Zoleka describes the many challenges she has faced, from addiction and coming to terms with the tragic loss of two children, to breast cancer. When Hope Whispers was published in November 2013. Zoleka hopes the message of her book will change lives and encourage people to change themselves. “I want to empower women diagnosed with breast cancer.” Through her detailed explanations, Zoleka said she hopes to inspire women going through chemotherapy. “One of the things I learned from my grandparents is that everyone has the power to make a difference in other people’s lives, no matter how difficult their own circumstances, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Some of the challenges Zoleka is facing now that her chemotherapy treatment is done are not having nipples. She makes it clear, however, that it is not a challenge, but an adjustment. “I am back now on Tamoxifen (most commonly used hormone therapy for the treatment of breast cancer) and Zoladex (A hormone therapy classified as an ‘LHRH agonist’), which I have to get every three months.” Zoleka says it is a vast adjustment getting used to menopause. “I’m menopausing for the second time in my life.” For Zoleka the biggest challenge remains the many women who are still not able to talk about the disease. “For as long as that is happening, there’s still a whole lot more work that needs to be done,” she said.

In April 2014, Zoleka gave birth to a baby girl, Zanyiwe Zenziwe Bashala. Grandmother, Winnie, was present at the birth. Zoleka fell pregnant while on Tamoxifen. “I am not an advocate for falling pregnant so soon after cancer treatment,” Zoleka says. “My daughter is a true miracle and blessing.”

Zoleka’s advise to other people diagnosed with breast cancer is don’t self-diagnose through the Internet. “I think it is very dangerous.” She reiterates that being informed is key. “Be very active in your own treatment, ask a lot of questions.” Zoleka says she always knew what to expect and how to counter the side effects. “Take the necessary precautions to survive.” Zoleka says there is life after breast cancer. “I am proof of that.”

After an immense battle with breast cancer, 34-year-old Zoleka has finally found her purpose in life. A mom to two beautiful children, Zoleka says she’s keen to extend her family, hoping to have twins in a couple of years. “I always wanted to be a mother and I would love a bigger family.”

Zoleka wants to perfect what she is doing now, “that’s making a difference and saving lives.”

Written by Elsje Beneke