In this day and age, breast cancer treatment has advanced immensely. We take a look at four Super Survivors – Anne Kojetin, Dilean Nagal, Rita Mphokwane, and Emily Tselane – who were diagnosed over the past three decades to assess just how much this travelled road has transformed.
Anne Kojetin (70) stays in Germiston, JHB. She has three adult sons and four grandchildren. She was diagnosed 24 years ago and treated at Rose Acres Clinic.
In 1993, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45. For three months, she ignored the lump as she was too afraid to acknowledge it. She eventually went to a doctor, who sent her for a mammogram. The lump was then aspirated, and the results came back negative.
None the less, the specialist explained it still needed to be surgically removed. He informed Anne that a lumpectomy would be performed due to it being benign. However, if it turned out to be malignant (a pathologist would be in theatre to re-test it), a mastectomy would be done.
During the surgery, it was confirmed that is was breast cancer. Anne woke up thinking she had a lumpectomy but in actual fact her left breast had been removed, as well as over 30 lymph nodes. Luckily, no cancer was found in the nodes, so she didn’t have to have chemotherapy or radiation, but was put on tamoxifen for six years. “I didn’t dwell on the fact that my breast had been removed…to me the problem was now solved – the cancer was gone,” Anne said.
Two days after Anne’s surgery, a Reach for Recovery (RFR) volunteer came to visit her with a mastectomy care bag, which comprised a pillow to put under her arm; a ‘fluffy bunny’ to use as a prosthesis in the meantime; and a rope to exercise with, amongst other items. “The visit was lovely; she gave me advice but mainly I was given hope as she had been cancer-free for 16 years,” Anne said.
The idea of reconstruction only came up eight months after Anne’s surgery. Anne and a friend went to a RFR meeting, where a plastic surgeon gave a talk. “He mentioned that there had been a lot of ‘flops’ and that it was quite risky. Plus, the amount of slides he showed of mutilated breasts were horrid. So my friend and I thought: not a chance!” Anne explained.
For the past two decades, Anne has been wearing a breast prosthesis – with satisfaction. However, she does wish that she had both breasts removed “so my boobs would be straight.”
When asked about current surgeries and treatment, Anne has the opinion that it “seems more complicated now.”
Dilean Nagel (55) lives in Ennerdale, JHB with her husband and their adopted daughter. She was diagnosed 16 years ago. Her mastectomy was done at Lenmed Clinic while her chemotherapy and radium therapy took place at Rand Clinic.
In July 2001, the first thought that went through Dilean’s mind when she was told the lump, under her arm, was in fact Stage 4 breast cancer was “When am I going to die?” Her daughter had started Grade 1 that year, and she believed she was going to leave her behind.
The doctor explained that only once he opened her up (surgery) could they decide what her treatment would be. If the cancer was too far gone, they would close her up and she would be offered palliative care. “I knew that I would either come out without my left breast or I would die,” Dilean said.
But thank heavens, the aggressive 10cm lump, that was 2mm away from her rib cage, was removed. Her rib cage was scraped and many lymph nodes were removed. Her six chemo and 33 radium sessions began simultaneously.
Reconstruction was offered at a later stage, but Dilean was content with her breast prosthesis. The only problem she encounters is finding mastectomy bras as they aren’t sold at retail stores.
No support groups were referred to Dilean but being a home-based caregiver herself, she thought she knew the journey cancer patients faced but soon realised every patient’s road is different. “My husband was my caregiver but no one counselled me,” she explained. The mother and wife would cry and argue with herself when she was alone, but when her family came home, she would be a chameleon and change, putting on a brave front. She confessed she struggled with depression. “Although I didn’t receive counselling, I had support from my friends and family. Their prayers kept me going, and my faith kept me alive,” she added. Her oncologist told her that her survival was dependant on three things: 20% – medical, 30% – attitude, and 50% – God’s will. And, she admits it was through God’s mercy and love that she is living.
Then, in 2013, Dilean was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent a full hysterectomy and was put on chemo tablets for three months. In this, Dilean learned that you don’t ever bargain with God. “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I prayed to God, asking Him to please let me see my daughter matriculate and witness her matric farewell, and, low and behold, I did but when she started writing her prelim exams, I found out I had cervical cancer. Since then I told God ‘no more bargaining!’” Dilean said, while laughing.
“Every year in October, my spiritual family and I organise a candlelight prayer service for those affected by cancer. We also have a remembrance minute for those who passed on due to cancer,” Dilean said.
Dilean considers the latest breast cancer treatments as better, and believes awareness has improved, though she feels much more can be done in Ennerdale; she always has to travel to attend meetings or events.
Rita Mphokwane (49) lives in Mamelodi, Pretoria with her husband. She has one son and three grandchildren. She was diagnosed seven years ago, and underwent a mastectomy at Klerksdorp Tshepong Hospital while her chemotherapy and radiation were done at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
After being turned away by two government hospitals in Pretoria, Rita decided to try her luck at Klerksdorp Tshepong Hospital while she was visiting her grandchild. “When I discovered the lump in my left breast, I went to a GP, who referred me to a hospital for tests. But at two different hospitals, I was just stared at and told everything is fine, without a doctor even checking my breast,” Rita explained.
On the same day she went to Tshepong Hospital, she had all the necessary tests done. A week later, it was confirmed that she had Stage 2B breast cancer. “I was in complete shock, but the doctor made me feel at ease, telling me there is hope,” Rita said. “He told me my breast had to be removed. My worry was that my husband would leave me and what would happen to me after that?”
Rita asked the doctor if her and her husband (he was there when she was given the news) could go outside to talk. She asked him if he was going to leave her; he promised her that he would be by her side all the way. She then agreed to the mastectomy, which was booked a week later.
Rita added that at first she had great concerns of being treated at a government hospital, but came to the realisation that God is there as well.
At this point in time, Rita’s mother phoned the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) asking to be referred to a support group. A volunteer from Reach for Recovery (RFR) then met with Rita before her op, explaining what to expect but, most importantly, gave her hope that breast cancer can be cured. She was also given a mastectomy care bag.
Rita then had to undergo chemo and radiation. She asked if she could be referred to Steve Biko’s Oncology Department, which was closer to home. “I was scared of the name chemo, as other people told me ‘You’re going to die, cos chemo kills’…I wanted to be near my parents, because if I was to die, I wanted to die with them close by.” After her treatment was completed, TRAM flap or lat flap reconstruction were offered; Rita opted for lat flap. This year February, she finished her six years on tamoxifen.
The late Gloria Tshoba, who was also a survivor and a RFR volunteer, impacted Rita’s life immeasurably, and inspired Rita to become a volunteer herself. Today, Rita is actively involved; giving educational talks and showing newly diagnosed patients that survival is real.
Emily Tselane (31) lives in Pretoria North with her husband and two daughters, aged six and two. She was diagnosed last year and was treated at Netcare Femina Hospital.
Being an auditor, wife, and a mother of two young daughters can be hard to juggle. So when Emily’s husband discovered a lump in her right breast, in June last year, and told her to get it examined, she put it off as her focus was on other things – mostly work deadlines. Eventually, two and a half months later, it was assessed and it was indeed breast cancer.
All the mother of two could think about when she heard the news was her children and family. “I was in disbelief. I am young and have no family history of breast cancer. My mother had a brain tumour, but it was removed and she is still with us today; for which my sister and I are so very grateful for,” Emily said.
Due to the 13mm tumour being too big, a lumpectomy was not an option. In September 2016, Emily underwent a mastectomy, and will be on tamoxifen for the next five years. Immediate reconstruction was offered, however, Emily wanted to heal properly before anything more is done. She will be consulting with a reconstructive surgeon in the next few months.
“I believe God allowed me to get cancer in order for Him to show His greatness. He would never give us something we can’t handle,” Emily said. She held onto the Bible verse 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” She added that her main support came from her church, family and friends.
The young mother found the introduction to the older survivors at the Buddies For Life cover shoot very encouraging. “Seeing these women walk their journeys for a number of years, the longest being 24 years, and them enjoying life even after what they have been through is inspiring!” Emily said. Rita told Emily all about Reach for Recovery (RFR) and Emily will soon be joining Rita as a RFR volunteer. “God wants me to help other breast cancer patients and spread His hope.”