We catch up with former Super Survivors – Velisa Sishuba and Jenna Skews – who both underwent a mastectomy at the age of 17.
Velisa Sishuba (20) is studying journalism at Rhodes University. She was diagnosed, in 2014, with angiosarcoma (cancer that forms in the cells that line the blood vessels) of the breast. Her treatment consisted of a single mastectomy and reconstruction.
Are other students aware that you’re a cancer survivor?
There are people who know and they’re very supportive; they show love and offer to carry anything that is too heavy for me. Other people, who’ve happened to find out, are awkward and strange towards me simply because it’s not something they know how to handle.
Looking back, would you’ve done anything differently?
Honestly, I can say I handled it as best as I could. I especially tried to be as grateful and practical as one could in that situation.
You had quite a tough time at school, tell us about that.
It was difficult…I felt as though learners and teachers wanted it to be private and not know about it. People’s support quickly drifted into frustration and anger because once I got it into my head that I should educate people about the disease – which I did, I was labelled an attention seeker, who didn’t know how to keep things to herself.
In part that was true. Of course, when you’re 17 you’re naturally insecure and want attention. So, I can honestly say I did want that love and support. A few girls in my grade were especially mean, telling my friends that I always wanted the spotlight on me and how they were fed up with me. While other girls were courteous and I appreciated that.
But I want to acknowledge my friends (they know who they are) that really did their best…as much as they could. For that I say thank you for carrying my bags and holding my hand when I was crying from pain.
What memory stands out the most?
In school, we had talks on breast cancer as one teacher survived it. She said, “One in every eight girls will have breast cancer” and the impact of that statement and my reaction thereafter is something I will never forget. I remember her looking at every single girl. Then I looked to my left and right, not knowing two years later I would be that one.
Tell us about the recurrence.
It happened in June 2017; the angiosarcoma spread to my torso. I noticed a rash on the side of my body (under my arm and towards my back). When I went home (Pretoria) for holidays, I told my parents; my check-up was already scheduled. I was in shock and numb when I heard the cancer was back and spread.
Everything happened so quickly, and I do feel that I should have asked more questions to prepare myself and know exactly what was going to be done to my body.
The first time, the surgeries slowly progressed so I had time to process and accept the changes. The second time, it was only after the op when I saw the extent of the surgery on my back…I didn’t have enough time to ‘mourn’ that part of my body. But ultimately, it’s not about looks, it is about being alive.
I then had a port inserted for 12 weeks of chemotherapy, and radiation thereafter for six weeks. This was hell and the hardest part for me. The only reason I pulled through was because of God, my family and friends. One of my friends, Dominique, even shaved her head once my hair fell out.
I officially finished treatment on 10th January this year. Though I must still get my port removed.
Were you informed of the chance of infertility caused by chemotherapy?
Yes, I was told that there is a chance that I may not be able to have children and was advised to freeze my eggs. At my age, having children is not what I am thinking about, plus the fertility treatment is exceptionally expensive, and I was told if I did opt for it, it would delay my treatment schedule. I wasn’t comfortable with that. Besides, I trust in Jesus that if I am meant to have children, I will.
Jenna Skews (23) is the project administrator at Breast Health Foundation (BHF). She was diagnosed with a phyllodes tumour (cancer that forms in the supportive tissue of the breast) in 2012, and underwent a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction.
In your first interview, you made the statement: ìI had to come to terms with losing my womanhood before I had a chance to consider what it meant.î Expand on this.
I had grown out of my geeky phase and I was blessed with a beautiful curvy body. Although I did not realise just how special it was until I had to lose a very big part of it.
When did you tell your boyfriend about your breast cancer?
I have been in a relationship for the past six years. My boyfriend started dating me after my mastectomy. I shared what I was going through early on in our relationship. He was very supportive and understanding. I could not have asked for anything more. I first let him know about my surgeries. At a later stage, I gave him more detail about the tumour and surgeries. Then, when he was ready, he asked me questions.
A rumour was started at your school that you had a breast reduction due to having large breast. How did you react to this?
I decided to tell my peers that I was having a dangerous lump removed, rather than giving all the details, as I was not ready for those around me to know what I was going through. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with questions.
Then a rumour was started that I had a breast reduction. I was angry that anyone could think I would take two weeks off my matric year for the aesthetics of my breasts. I was fighting bigger monsters.
Did you suffer from depression?
I know that depression occurs often amongst breast cancer patients. Due to breast cancer being so rare amongst school girls, there is not much understanding into how a teenager should handle the pressures of high school as well as a diagnosis.
Though, I believe that my family and doctors monitored me closely. I do feel that my surgeries had a significant impact on my emotional being; it was particularly difficult finding my way to adulthood as well as dealing with the after-effects of my surgeries.
I received a great deal of support from family, friends as well as BHF. Now that I am working for BHF, I want to support young breast cancer patients, as I did not have someone close to my own age to talk to.
Tell us how art became a way to deal with your journey in matric.
I had taken art as a subject in matric. My final art project comprised of two pieces. The theme was Journey: this was perfect for me because I was going through such a difficult journey.
We worked on this project for most of the year and had to include a journal to explain our artistic process. This was my greatest form of therapy.
My first art piece was on my journey with cancer; it helped me come to terms with what I was going through as well as deal with it. By the end of my art project I was strong enough to openly dedicate my art to my journey.
I created a drawing of a woman walking down a hospital passage.
This signified the morning after my mastectomy. I had been bedridden all night and was finally able to get up and walk. It was my first steps towards healing and it gave me hope.
My second art piece was inspired by Jackson Pollock (a painter who played a big part in the abstract expressionism movement). I found the biggest possible canvas and flicked red and white paint on it. I sewed “With strength, faith and courage we can conquer” onto a bandage and made a breast cancer ribbon with it.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
Everyone says, “But you were so young, how did you get through that?” Honestly, I have no idea! When you don’t have an option, you do what you need to do to get through the difficult times. You find strength and hope from somewhere deep inside you and you push on.
I don’t look back and think about how I could have handled things differently because I believe that I truly handled everything to the best of my ability.
MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams
Laurelle Williams is the Editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. email@example.com