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Breast cancer

Updated 17 November 2017

Mother on ‘toxic’ chemo: ‘It’s the red devil’

Tanya Da Silva Ferreira survived breast cancer. She tells a very personal story about what cancer treatment looks like.

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Tanya Da Silva Ferreira remembers the exact day she received her cancer diagnosis – invasive, oestrogen-receptorpositive, premenopausal metastatic ductal carcinoma breast cancer. 

“It was Monday 27 August 2012 when I had an appointment for a mammogram after finding a lump in my left breast,” she says. 

“When I first heard the breast cancer diagnosis, it was as if the earth had stopped spinning on its axis for that split second. Inside me, at the core of my being, a volcano erupted. The one thought that immediately crossed my mind was ‘what about my children and family?’ It was as if I wanted to do so much in such a short amount of time.” 

She felt positive though, “I had the guts to fight this!”

Fighting cancer

Her treatment plan consisted of six sessions of chemotherapy over a period of six months prior to surgery to shrink the tumour and contain the cancer.

Tanya’s first four chemotherapy sessions over four months consisted of an Adriamycin Cytoxan chemotherapy cocktail mix. “It’s also known as the ‘red devil’ because it is red in colour and extremely toxic,” she adds. 

This was followed by two sessions of Taxol chemotherapy over two months, every 22 days.  

“After two red devil chemotherapy sessions, I lost my hair. My side effects included hair loss, short-term memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, bone and muscle pain, loss of sleep, sweats, mouth sores, loss of the sense of taste and a heightened sense of smell. I wore a wig to functions, and bandanas now and then – but I often went bald. I knew that I had to go through it to fight it and walked with my head held high.”  

Migraine and nausea

Her family had a roster of who attended chemo sessions with her. “I’d have a chemo session and then stay at home for four days afterwards to stabilise, and then return to work until the next chemotherapy session. This went on for six months. It was my family, friends and colleagues who kept my spirits high and carried me to the finish line. You could say that they were my anchor while I was out at sea.” 

Up until 8 February 2013, Tanya’s treatment plan was on track and the chemo was working. But during a training session at work she started to feel light-headed with a migraine and nausea. “I couldn’t quite comprehend what was said to me, it was as if my head was in a bubble.”

Tanya went home and called her oncologist. She needed to have her blood count checked. A few days later she received the results. “On Monday 11 February 2013 it was my 37th birthday. I was on my way to work when my phone rang. One of the sisters from GVI Oncology was calling to say that my white blood cell count was extremely low and that I could not go into the office as I was susceptible to infection. I couldn’t have chemotherapy until the blood count was up again.” 

She stayed home and avoided people who were sick as her immune system was compromised. Three days later her white blood cell count was high enough to continue with chemo. 

The next steps

After her chemo was finished, Tanya was scheduled for surgery on 5 April 2013. 

“I arrived at ICU at 6am for a 17-hour surgery. I had a double mastectomy and deep flap reconstruction, a complicated microscopic surgery. The surgeon removed all the cancer in my left breast and confirmed that there was no cancer in my right breast, which was also removed for preventative reasons.”

During the operation, the surgeon found cancer in one of her axillary lymph nodes, which was not found during the initial diagnosis biopsy. They removed two axillary lymph nodes.  

Tanya spent three days in ICU and was then moved to the surgery ward. She could only be discharged when she could walk and her vital signs were 100%. “During my hospital stay, I had many visitors; again, my family was there all the time. After two days in the surgery ward, I was discharged. It felt so good to be home again and spend time with my children.”

She spent six weeks at home recovering from surgery. Six weeks later she started radiation treatment. “I had one session every day from Monday to Friday for 28 days. The radiation was a lot easier than the chemo. I would go every morning before work. My radiation was stopped two sessions prior to the planned date due to my armpit skin splitting from the radiation.” After a week’s break, she completed radiation. 

Nearing the end

After radiation, Tanya had to go for physiotherapy – “I couldn’t lift my left arm due to the removal of the axillary lymph node and the radiation.” 

She was put onto preventative treatment because her breast cancer had been hormone receptive and the risk of reoccurrence was extremely high. “I had a hysterectomy in September 2013. I am currently on preventative medication, namely Neopheden (Tamoxifen), a form of chemotherapy, which I was told I needed to take for five to seven years, but have since been informed that it might be for the rest of my life.  The Tamoxifen comes with its own side effects and keeps me in full menopause, so when I feel the hot flushes, I know it’s working!” 

Tanya received her all clear at the end of June 2013.  

“I cannot explain the feeling of absolute respect for life.”

A lot to take in   

“My story sounds like a lot for one person to go through and I only touched on some issues a cancer patient faces daily, but it is worth every side effect when you wake up in the morning and you can live another day and spend time with the people you love. It gives a whole new meaning to ‘life’ and everything we take for granted.” 

Breast Cancer Awareness South Africa

Tanya founded Breast Cancer Awareness South Africa in 2012 shortly after her diagnosis to raise awareness around breast cancer. She began this cause to help those fighting breast cancer with making their day-to-day tasks easier – she found that cooking meals for the family and cleaning the house, for example, was difficult during her cancer treatment. 

Tanya is currently busy with a project to supply all those going into hospital for treatment with a “buddy” bag which will contain everything they need to make their hospital stay as comfortable as possible. The project will also include cancer survivors visiting patients in hospital and brightening up their day with pink roses and messages of hope.

You can support her by assisting with funding. Additionally, you can get involved by supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors and honouring the taken. You can get in touch via email or on her Facebook page

Image credit: Supplied

 

Ask the Expert

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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