Hearing my doctor utter the words, “The news isn’t great, you need to come see me”, after finding a lump in my breast just a few days before literally took my breath away.
The mammogram and ultrasound confirmed the news, I had breast cancer. As I am sure many women feel in that moment of truth, their lives flashing before them and halting suddenly at that point in time, not knowing what the future holds and feeling nothing but angst.
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A few weeks later I was admitted for bilateral mastectomy surgery. It was an emotional and physical roller coaster ride, which distracted me from most of the normal things in my life.
However, instead of allowing the profound feeling of thinking my body was failing me, I chose to focus on the opposite experience of realising how strong and resilient my body had become through being fit and living healthily before my diagnosis.
My breast cancer story part 2
I am thrilled that there is a “part 2” to my story. When people ask me what message I would like to give to women about breast cancer it is always that ladies need to “get hands on” and check their breast for changes regularly.
When you catch this disease early, you have options, you have time to consider them, and you have the best chances of being okay at the end of it. Like I am. At the end. And all clear.
When I reflect on the experience, I say I am incredibly lucky. I found my lump early. I got into a great breast cancer programme at the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg with renowned surgeons and a simple process to follow. I got sound, constructive advice and felt enormously cared for throughout the rigours of the breast care centre’s programme. My treatment has removed the cancer and is making sure that it stays gone.
A serious disease is not just about your physical body though, and so my fortune extends past now being disease free. I have discovered that my network of family, friends, work colleagues and exercise buddies is phenomenal and I have been astounded by their caring and generosity. They made me laugh when I wanted to cry. Also, my diagnosis has taken me well out of my comfort zone.
I have had the opportunity to talk to people I normally never would have. I have been able to encourage others, and in doing so discovered something new in myself. And because of excellent medical care, a supportive network and embracing the opportunities that have come my way because of my diagnosis, I am a better version of myself today.
That being said, the process of getting myself well was harrowing. In March 2013, I opted for a double mastectomy to give myself the best possible chance of the cancer not recurring. The fear before that surgery was profound. I could barely breathe, waiting in that hospital bed, wondering if I would even be able to look at myself in the mirror once my breasts were gone.
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My recovery after the mastectomy surgery was incredibly painful. My movement was limited and slow. It was painful to stand upright and I wasn’t able to lie down to sleep. However, I was amazed by my own body’s power of recovery, when just three weeks later, I was ready to start the tissue expansion.
The tissue expanders are placed under the skin during the mastectomy surgery. Over a period of 18 weeks, the expanders were gradually inflated with saline solution to the size that I wanted my breasts to be. Can you imagine what it is like to have your breasts grow a little every two weeks? It was transformative!
During the course of the inflation, in June 2013, I also started my chemotherapy treatment. This was largely precautionary to secure my health and so the regime was considered a “light” option. As such, I kept my hair, experienced few side effects, kept working and tried to proceed with my normal life as much as possible.
I had my treatment for one day every two consecutive weeks, with a break in the third week, and had 12 sessions all in all. On day one, a very kind oncology nursing sister described to me the wretched side effects of chemotherapy, i.e. nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, changes in your taste, sleeplessness and fatigue.
I was so afraid
I was so afraid of what was about to happen. So afraid. But, I was lucky too. My only major side effect was chronic fatigue. I was exhausted, all the time. The kind of exhaustion that sleep cannot cure. I felt like I could hardly think straight. During this period, my oncologist recommended that I exercise daily and get my heart rate up for at least 20 minutes.
I have been a dedicated Adventure Boot Camp participant and so I continued to go to classes at least twice a week. I was unable to operate at the intensity I had before, but, it felt so good to be able to huff and puff and laugh with my girls there. I guess I got my lungs filled with air and my heart encouraged. And it really helped me to just carry on.
I also believe that the regular exercise helped to boost my immunity and help my body to tackle the chemical onslaught. I managed to survive that winter with virtually no colds or flu, and I managed the side effects of my treatment well.
Once chemotherapy was done, in September 2013, I could continue with the reconstruction, which happened in two surgeries, the last one of which took place in May 2014. The first surgery replaced the tissue expanders with the breast prosthetics, and the final surgery reconstructed the nipples, which required a significant amount of wound care.
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This was followed by scans and rescans with a tense waiting period in between. But, I got the all clear in a scan at the end of September 2014.
Able to look at myself in the mirror now
If you are wondering, I am able to look at myself in the mirror. It took time to embrace myself as whole in the face of the loss I felt. I have some bad scarring, and the prosthetics are a poor cousin to the real thing. But, the nipples are healing so beautifully that they look quite real.
To a large extent I am physically restored and the image I have of myself as a women has been reset. My prosthetics are exquisite – a symbol of man’s endeavour to create beauty from ashes, of a women’s desire to thrive even in the face of adversity.
I have continued to exercise as much as possible, even with the in and out of hospital and surgery recoveries that I have experienced. The biomechanics of my chest are different now and I am still struggling to do a full push up as the muscles are weaker and pull differently over the implants.
I am slowly building up my strength again and this is promoting my sense of physical restoration. Now, more than ever, I believe that my body is better in an exercise challenge. It is stronger, more resilient and happier. This year, for the first time, I tackled the Adventure Boot Camp 40 day dare, a challenge to attend class every day, during winter, for 40 consecutive days. And I did it. And I am so proud of myself.
In closing, my cancer is hormone sensitive. So the ongoing treatment is to keep my hormones low so that any cancer cells are effectively “starved” and nothing comes back. The implication of this is that at 37, I am in an induced menopause.
My heart is broken on this count as I am having to shelve the dreams that I had of having my own biological family. Dealing with this consequence is ongoing for me. My husband and I are looking into adoption and I hope that one day, I will see a beautiful family, and my heart too will be fully restored.
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I hardly expected life to turn out like this; that I can be profoundly amazing and devastating in equal measure. But I believe that we are equal to the challenge.
And here I am. All clear. With the fullness of life ahead of me, outside of my comfort zone. And I continue to believe that the sum of my parts, an amazing network of kind people, physical health restored and a deep gratitude in my heart will add up to more than I imagined.
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