Breast cancer

14 October 2013

Breast cancer: a single mom's journey to recovery

Diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, Colleen Arumugam faced her illness head-on. But she couldn’t have done it without her seven-year-old daughter.

Some might agree that Colleen Arumugam is a perfect example of the strength it takes to live and battle with cancer. Diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer, Colleen faced her illness head-on. But she couldn’t have done it without the love and support of her friends and family – and most of all, she couldn’t have done it without her seven-year-old daughter.

A cancer diagnosis always comes as a shock, no matter a person’s family history or personal situation. In Colleen’s case, both her dad and sister had cancer, so when she felt a painful lump in her breast in November 2011, it was easy to assume the worst.

A mammogram on 8 December, followed by and ultrasound and biopsy, confirmed there was definitely a tumour. Four days later, Colleen got the call from her radiologist. It was breast cancer.


She met with her surgeon that same week and it was decided she would need a mastectomy. She was then referred to Dr Devan Moodley, a renowned oncologist at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, as she would require treatment before the surgery could happen.

Knowing her cancer status provided her oncologist with important information about how the tumour acts and what kind of treatment would work best. In this case, she needed chemotherapy for 12 weeks and radiation. Because she was also confirmed as HER2-positive, she needed to undergo targeted therapy as well.

"What mattered to me was having some control over the process," says Colleen. This was why she cut her hair before treatment, so that she didn’t have to go through the heart-breaking experience of major hair loss.

Single mom

Being a single mom didn’t make her situation any easier. She lived alone with her seven-year-old daughter, Mireya, who had just started grade one two days before her first chemotherapy session. Being immobile only exacerbated an already difficult situation. But they managed.

"Without support I would have stopped breathing! But there is only so much help that you can request from friends and family. And luckily I have incredible friends who kept me sane through all the drama," says Colleen.

"There were days when I thought I was not going to survive the chemo, but there were also good days too."

Throughout her treatments, Colleen experienced body pains, hot flushes, mouth sores and severe itch attacks. Her veins started shrinking as her treatment progressed, and at one point the chemotherapy leaked out of her veins, causing tissue damage. She also developed an abscess on her tailbone which caused such a bad infection she thought she was dying.

Chemo-care package

During the bad days, supper was sometimes just Marie biscuits and tea because it was all she had strength to make, but having Mireya with her gave the push she needed to keep going.

"My little angel tried and still tries to do everything she can for me. She used to make me a chemo-care package that I was only allowed to open when I got to the hospital," Colleen says. "She would help me bath when I couldn’t stand or support myself. She would have my pyjamas laid out for me and help me dress. Most importantly, when I did break down and came close to giving up, she held my hand and assured me that I would make it!"

After her final chemotherapy treatment, Colleen was scheduled to have a bilateral mastectomy on 31 July 2012.

Six weeks after the mastectomy, Colleen started a further six weeks of radiation, and then an additional week was added on for a booster treatment. She will continue to take hormone treatment (oral chemotherapy) for the next five years to make sure she remains in stable health.

'The worst is behind me'

"After the chemo, a bilateral mastectomy and radiation, I’m glad the worst is behind me!" says Colleen, who is now in her remission stage. She has started the breast reconstruction process, but she isn’t sure if the radiated skin will stretch.

"If it doesn’t work out then I’m fine with that, as my breasts do not make me a woman… it just helps make my clothes fit better!" she jokes.

But in all seriousness, Colleen is focusing on herself and getting better. She has started work again after being eight months off and although it’s challenging, she is making great strides. "I am still trying to find that perfect balance wherein I know who I am after cancer and where I am headed," she notes.

She is also finally able to continue being the mom that her daughter has been fighting for. "I survived cancer because I have someone special to live for. My daughter’s touch and smile were my most significant treatments, far outreaching the impact of any drugs."

Colleen is an ambassador for Be Cancer Aware. For more information about breast cancer and colleen, visit or visit Be Cancer Aware on Facebook.  


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Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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