I have been a Breast Cancer Survivor for 5 years. It was the month of Christmas, 15 December 2004 to be precise. I was 31 years old and running my own business when my life changed in an instant. Whilst everyone else were thinking of last minute Christmas shopping, holiday plans and how to separate...
I have been a Breast Cancer Survivor for 5 years.
It was the month of Christmas, 15 December 2004 to be precise. I was 31 years old and running my own business when my life changed in an instant. Whilst everyone else were thinking of last minute Christmas shopping, holiday plans and how to separate uncle Scott with the drinking problem and Auntie Mavis with the verbal diarrhea from the family in law, we were forced to think about cancer.
My husband, Rohan and I were still basically newlyweds, just bought a theatre restaurant business in Stellenbosch and were enjoying our life with a house in Cape Town’s suburbs and the addition of two Dalmatian puppies into the family. I would never in a million years have thought that I was a candidate for cancer. Like another breast cancer survivor friend of mine always says, you would have had to shoot me to kill me. Being striked with cancer or any other life threatening disease wasn’t something that ever would’ve crossed my mind.
It was on a Saturday morning, when I accidentally felt a small, hard lump on the side of my right breast, almost underneath my armpit. It wasn’t sore, but I immediately knew it wasn’t supposed to be there. First thing on the Monday morning I went to see my GP and after some tests the surgeon confirmed my worst fear: I had Breast Cancer. I opted for a lumpectomy (removing only the lump and not my whole breast) which I had 2 weeks later and the bad news kept coming. The cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes and they also had to perform an auxiliary lymph node dissection, taking out all the lymph nodes. They did 2 very important pathological tests at the same time – one to determine whether my cancer was Estrogen positive and another to determine whether it was HER2 positive. In both cases the answer was yes.
My treatment started in January of that following year and I had to take charge of the disease and become an oncology student majoring in breast cancer almost immediately. The terms that got thrown at us were foreign and unfamiliar, but it was important to take control and find out everything about my specific cancer. There were times that I felt like the doctors took all my control away from me, but then I realised that there were lots I could do. I could take control of my diet, living healthy, continue not to smoke and I quit drinking alcohol. I realised that I had to work on my stress levels and that I am not super woman. I’ve become quite the expert at saying no and not to be so hard on myself – although this is still very much a work in progress.
Cancer is an illness that asks everything from you, because it can take everything. It shows up when you sometimes least expect it and whether you are ready or not, you have to take up the fight with everything you’ve got.
Eldre and her husband Rohan
After 3 months of chemo and 2 months of radiation treatment, I started the HER2-targeted IV therapy, as this would contribute greatly to my chances of survival. I was by then exhausted and tired from all the treatments, but knew I had to do everything humanly possible to fight this unwelcome intruder in my body. Having your tumor tested to see if it is HER2-positive is important because it will guide your oncologist in determining the best treatment strategy for you. The best thing about this therapy was that it didn’t have major side effects and I could continue with my life whilst receiving the treatment every 3 weeks. The Herceptin treatment lasted for exactly 1 year.
For the Estrogen receptor-positive cancer I was treated with hormone therapy. I’ve been on this therapy for 4 and a half years now and receive the injections on a monthly basis. This stops my body from producing estrogen, which straight away plunged me into a menopausal state. And let me tell you, menopause is not for ‘sissies’. Menopause has had far reaching consequences for me as a young woman who had breast cancer. There is nothing sexy about hot flushes, memory loss, aging dry skin, fatigue and constant moodiness and irritability. If I could, I would nominate my husband for most patient man of the year, 4 years consecutively.
I had many low days, but always thought that as long as the up days outweighed the low ones, I would be okay.
Cancer has taught me so many things.
It taught me patience – it’s a very long road.
It taught me gratitude and to appreciate the people in my life every day – my husband was there for me through the toughest time we’ve ever had to face. He stepped up to take care of the house and business, he insisted that we go for a second opinion, which I’m very grateful for now; he showed his silent support by joining me in shaving my hair off before it could fall out, due to the chemo. And he made the decision with me that cancer wasn’t going to get the better of us. We were going to fight it come hell or high water. I made a list of things I still had to live for and I believe this was where I really started to fight back. My faith, family and friends have played an integrate part in my journey, especially when the going got tough.
During this time I also joined the AmaBele Belles (http://www.amabelebelles.co.za) , a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team and we brought back a silver medal from the 1st Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat World Championship in Singapore. This team is such an inspiration to other cancer patients and a testimony of how one can get back onto the path of physical and emotional fitness after Breast Cancer.
Looking back over my journey I can see the golden thread of growth and the deeper meaning this has had on my life. I felt like I’ve gotten a second chance at life. At the very beginning of my diagnoses my husband and I were involved in the SA music industry and we could use this platform to assist in compiling a compilation CD, Son in Blom, to help raise funds for the non-governmental organisation People Living With Cancer. I’ve consequently become more and more involved with the organisation and I’m currently the Managing Director. We provide a free programme, Cancer Buddies, that matches newly diagnosed patients with survivors. There are so many people out there who are willing to share their cancer experience with new patients and to listen and give hope. Cancer is no longer a death sentence and with early diagnoses, screenings and proper treatment a lot more people can survive. I believe my early detection was imperative to treating my cancer successfully.
In Chicken Soup for the Soul the following is stated: What if cancer happened for you instead of to you? Taking it in this way, she continues, propels us away from the role of being its victim, toward self-realisation and empowerment, which, she adds “nobody can do…except you.” Advising us that cancer is also “a time to claim authority and speak up,” she reminds us that we have the power of choice about the doctors who treat us, the treatments they provide and how they will affect us, and our long-term prospects. And pointing out that cancer “is just a word,” she reminds us that we can decide how we will respond to it, and that we are free “to move through all it brings with gratitude and love.” I believe this to be true for my own experience. I’m just a normal girl, but cancer has helped me discover the extraordinary in myself. I am not afraid anymore. I used cancer to re-set my life and become who I also wanted to be. Everyone can do this, you don’t have to wait for a big event in your life to happen before you start living the life you were meant to live.