Despite the ongoing struggles of attaining cancer care in the public health sector, Jennifer Blowers hasn’t given up and ensured she got the correct treatment she needed. She shares her first year since diagnosis with us.
Jennifer Blowers (48) lives in Muldersdrift, Gauteng with her partner, Warren Potter. Jennifer underwent a double mastectomy in December 2021. She is currently undergoing tri-weekly trastuzumab biosimilar treatments at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital (CMJAH) while waiting for radiation.
Diagnosis and then the fire
In February 2021 I was diagnosed with Stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) at Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic (HJBCC). The specialist told me that with the drug, trastuzumab, due to my HER2 triple positive levels, there was a good chance of full recovery. Hearing this gave me hope. Added to this, the caring nature of the specialist and her explantion of my diagnosis eased many of my anxieties.
I was scheduled for chemotherapy at CMJAH in April but a week before my appointment the hospital burnt down! My heart sank! What now?
When I was told that I would be diverted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) for chemotherapy my tension eased. However, due to delays from the fire, I had to have an updated scan, meaning that chemotherapy would only begin later. My emotions were on one heck of a rollercoaster.
Chemo finally begins
When I saw the oncologist a week later, I immediately asked if I would be given this life-saving drug, trastuzumab. I was told that the National Department of Health protocols didn’t allow for its use given my Stage 3 diagnosis and that I would receive regular chemotherapy drugs. This was so hard to accept but when my chemotherapy finally started in May at CHBAH, I was just so happy to be getting any form of treatment.
I underwent two treatments and was then referred back to CMJAH. Despite receiving chemotherapy and experiencing non-stop nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and fatigue, my tumour was growing and I was terribly distressed.
Before my second treatment I asked the oncologist for a prognosis and was told that it wasn’t good. Urgent trastuzumab treatment was needed or my chances were minimal.
In tears, I spoke to the Head of Department; she reiterated that due to me having Stage 3 HER2 positive cancer and not Stage 1 or 2, I wasn’t eligible for trastuzumab through CMJAH. She suggested that I buy trastuzumab, or a biosimilar, privately. A prescription was written out.
In desperation to try and save my life, I borrowed money to secure two trastuzumab biosimilar treatments, at a cost of R10 000. My sister abroad set up a GoFundMe page which, through the kindness of strangers, raised enough to continue treatment. These donors effectively saved my life. I can never thank them enough.
Thankfully, the trastuzumab biosimilar worked and my tumour started shrinking. I was on the road to recovery and my hope started to increase every day.
These positive results meant I could finally undergo surgery in December. The HJBCC surgical staff were proactive in organising my surgery over a busy period, with escalating COVID-19 infections creating unforeseen problems.
The operation was successful and my scars are healing well. However, another challenge looms in waiting to receive urgent radiation treatment. Getting radiation is even more important for IBC patients due to the volatile nature of this specific beast.
CMJAH is assisting with a few trastuzumab biosimilar treatments, as part of the post-op protocol. So, this is some light at the end of the very dark tunnel, but, unfortunately, I still have to cover some additional treatments.
Honestly, I’m grateful for the oncologist’s straight-forwardness concerning my prognosis as it helped me realise the urgency of arranging the trastuzumab biosimilar privately.
Thoughts and advice
If I could change one thing about cancer treatment in the public sector, it would be to devise separate protocols for IBC patients. It’s a different monster and providing the same treatment as regular breast cancer is actually ineffective and could be life-threatening. Immediately offering me the option of buying the trastuzumab biosimilar would have reduced my treatment and discomfort by many months. My tumour would never have grown as large (7 x 7cm).
My plea to all women is go for regular mammograms as cancer can be present in your body for five years before being noticeable. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that this can’t happen to you.
Most importantly, celebrate your daily triumphs, no matter how small. Your friends, family and fellow survivors offer advice, love and support. So, although you may often feel that you are experiencing the physical and mental strain alone, others are going through it with you and want to support and help. Accept this and be positive in mind and action.
Cancer isn’t something that you want to experience at all, but you certainly don’t want to do it by yourself. Thank you to Warren, all my friends and family, along with all of my life-saving donors, who are walking with me on this taxing path.
This article was written by Warren Potter, on behalf of Jennifer.