Updated 16 September 2014

Wilna shares her story on World Lymphoma Day


Today is World Lymphoma Awareness Day

Wilna van den Heever thought she was in the clear after two years of being lymphoma-free, but five years later, she was faced with the same diagnosis. She had relapsed and the cancer had come back with a vengeance. Despite this, Wilna kept her head held high, and thanks to the support from her friends and family, she was able to stay positive. It's been 21 years since her initial diagnosis and she is still happy and healthy.

Wilna, mother of three and qualified nursing sister, was diagnosed with lymphoma for the first time at the age 44 in August 1993. She was scheduled to undergo a total hysterectomy, and part of the testing process included a regular Pap smear report. Thanks to this simple test, her doctors found abnormalities, which led to her non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis.

She was incredibly lucky her doctors caught it when they did. Not only did she experience no symptoms at all, it is also very rare to find lymphoma in such a sensitive spot, as this type of cancer doesn't usually appear in female genital organs.

"It was a big shock for me, my husband and children. I was never in denial, though. I accepted it immediately," says Wilna.

After her surgery and several tests later, she started chemotherapy. Although she experienced some of the usual symptoms of this treatment, such as exhaustion and tingling fingers, Wilna continued her nursing career with very few problems, and never took any sick leave. Luckily, the chemotherapy was a success. After two years of living cancer-free, she was classified as in remission.

Taking responsibility for health and wellness

After her cancer experience, Wilna made a decision to take responsibility for her health and wellness. She started taking daily supplements of vitamins and minerals, and made a change to her diet. Her husband, understanding her need to live a healthier life, started a vegetable garden in the back yard of their home in Limpopo so they would always have easy access to the food she loved most.

Just when her life was back on track, Wilna had a relapse. It began with repeated intestinal obstructions with no apparent reason. Adding to the confusion, she wasn't experiencing any other typical lymphoma symptoms. A battery of tests finally showed that the lymphoma was back, and had metastasised to her small intestine. It was so bad that her surgeons were forced to remove 36 centimetres!

Wilna started yet another six month course of chemotherapy, but unfortunately it wasn't working. This was when her doctors decided to approach her cancer from a different angle. Instead of flooding her body with chemotherapy, they decided to put her on biological therapy, which would target the specific cancer cells in her body. She received this new treatment once a week for four weeks, and she experienced very few, if any, side effects.

It has been 21 years since her first diagnosis. She hasn't had to undergo any further treatment or maintenance therapy, and has been in the all clear ever since. Even though she lost her husband to a heart attack in 2012, she is still strong, active and healthy. She has also started her own business from home, and makes sure her physical and personal wellness is her prime focus.

For Wilna, having a good support base was, and still is, very important to recovery and staying positive. She makes sure she has an active social life, and is surrounded by the people that make her smile. "No one should have to walk the journey alone. We walk it heart to heart and hand in hand with our supporters," she says.

Wilna shares her story in support of the "I am the voice of Lymphoma" campaign.

About 'I am the voice of Lymphoma'

I am the voice of Lymphoma is a collaborative initiative between a number of local organisations, including CHOC, The Sunflower Fund, The Faces of Hope Foundation, Campaigning for Cancer, the KZN Lymphoma Support Group and Roche (Be Cancer Aware), with the support of the Lymphoma Coalition, the global body responsible for World Lymphoma Awareness Day. The key objective of this initiative is to raise awareness but it was also to discuss the importance of establishing an official voice for lymphoma in South Africa.

2014 marks the fourth year that Be Cancer Aware is raising awareness about lymphoma. Over the past years they have educated the public regarding this cancer through the many stories of lymphoma survivors and their experience with this sort of cancer, showing that recovery is possible if the cancer is detected early.

About World Lymphoma Awareness Day

Despite the fact that over one million people worldwide live with lymphoma, and over 1000 people are diagnosed with this cancer every day, it is still a very misunderstood and misdiagnosed cancer. Awareness of this cancer needs to be raised amongst the general public, general practitioners and the healthcare community worldwide. This is why WLAD is so important and why even the smallest of efforts to raise awareness of lymphoma can have a huge impact. WLAD is held annually on 15th September. 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of WLAD, a day initiated by the Lymphoma Coalition.

About Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer involving cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are the white blood cells that help fight infections. When these lymphocytes undergo a transformation and start multiplying uncontrollably, these cells can form a cancerous tumour . Being diagnosed with lymphoma is not always fatal, but catching it early improves overall survival rate .

Lymphoma is one of the more aggressive and fastest spreading cancers in our modern world, and it is estimated to become the second or third largest cancer by 2025 . There appears to be a lack of understanding of this complex cancer and because the symptoms are so broad, this often leads to diagnosis issues .

There are two types of lymphoma - Hodgkins lymphoma and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. They can be distinguished from each other microscopically but present very similar and almost identical symptoms .

Lymphoma is often confined to the lymph nodes and other lymphatic tissues, but they can spread to any other type of tissue almost anywhere in the body.

For more information, visit: page: Be Cancer Aware

Read more: 
The 'Voice of lymphoma' spreads the word
The lymphoma is not a death sentence
10 quick facts on lymphoma

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