Former soccer star Makhosi Luthuli is pain-free and enjoying life again after a cancerous tumour was removed from her face.
She was still groggy when her cousin handed her the cellphone. She thumbed it to selfie mode and looked at the screen. There it was: the face of Makhosi “Troublemaker” Luthuli – and one she hadn’t seen for nearly seven years due to the cancerous tumour that had covered most of the right side, severely distorting her features.
I will beat this
Last year the former Banyana Banyana midfielder told DRUM of her committment to fight her condition (I will beat this, 8 March 2018) and now she’s a changed woman, thrilled to have her life back after an operation to remove the growth. “It was like taking an ugly mask off my face,” she tells us, smiling. Makhosi (45) has every reason to be happy.
“I am free from pain and it feels like I’ve been given a second chance. I knew God would never give me a burden that is beyond me. I believe He wanted to test my faith and I’m glad I came out victorious.” The former midfielder told us last year she was determined not to allow the cancer to get the better of her.
“I’m not scared of dying but I’m not dying any time soon,” she said. “Cancer hasn’t taken my talent and skill away from me. I am still Makhosi the Troublemaker.”
Seven years of hell
But lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, had taken a horrific toll on her. She was in constant pain, had difficulty breathing because the tumour had disfigured her nose and she couldn’t chew food properly as part of her jaw and teeth had been destroyed.
Her left ear and eye were also covered and her kidneys had been damaged because of chemotherapy and radiation. But now doctors say she’s officially free from cancer and she’s looking forward to making up for lost time after “seven years of hell”.
“My speech has improved and I can now eat whatever I want to. I am no longer on special diets. I can breathe without any problems and I can see clearly through both my eyes.”
She missed eating fruit most, she says, because of the damage to her jaw. After the operation she could initially only eat soup but her diet is back to normal now for the first time in years.
The six-hour operation to give Makhosi her face back and rid her of the cancer cost R1 million. The surgery was performed by doctors from Operation Healing Hands, a charity initiative organised by a group of doctors and private sector medical professionals to give back to communities on Mandela Day.
The struggle to find help
Makhosi’s operation took place last year on Madiba’s birthday, 18 July, and the surgery, prosthetics, hospital and aftercare costs were donated by Life Wilgers Hospital in Pretoria.
Before Operation Healing Hands agreed to Makhosi’s operation the footballer was desperate for help. “As the cancer grew on my face I knocked on every door, including government departments, but I received no medical or financial assistance.
“It was a daily torture but I never allowed the illness to control my life, so I kept on fighting,” she says. She has nothing but praise for the medical team.
“I will never forget the love and compassion shown by those doctors, the nurses and all the personnel in that hospital. They explained the entire procedure to me and I was comfortable with it,” she recalls.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t afraid.
“Before the operation I said a prayer because I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. I was put under the anaesthetic and woke up six hours later.”
And when she opened her eyes, she was greeted by her cousin, Ncamisile Luthuli, who had been a pillar of support throughout her long battle. “She gave me her cellphone and for the first time I saw my face without the lump,” Makhosi says.
Repairing what's been damaged
She spent a week in hospital and now goes back for monthly check-ups, but she’s no longer on any medication. Now the only thing left is plastic surgery to repair the damage the tumour did to her face, an operation that’s been scheduled for later this year.
Makhosi, now freed from the pain that kept her indoors most of the time, is back on the soccer pitch with her club Future Stars, where she is the coach.
She’s feeling mentally and physically energised and stronger than before. “I know I’m one in a million people because I have survived cancer. I also know I survived because I fought with everything I have to get treatment.
“Many victims of cancer die without getting this kind of help. And some die without even getting a proper diagnosis or treatment.”
The Makhosi Lithuli Foundation
She recently started an organisation, the Makhosi Luthuli Foundation, to spread awareness about cancer, particularly in rural areas. “I’ve started visiting local schools,” she says. “I was once a soccer star but now I’m a cancer survivor. I know there are many people who are suffering silently and they are scared to come out.
My foundation seeks to support such people. For me, cancer was a journey and I told myself that it too shall pass. I didn’t allow it to stand in my way and I motivated myself every day.” Meanwhile, her players are thrilled to have their coach back.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have Makhosi. She sacrificed her time, her family, even her money just to see the club grow. We’ve also learnt life lessons from her and we are truly grateful for that,” player Sipho Mabika (23) tells us. Another player, Nyawose Sibongakonke (21) adds, “We feel very happy that she’s back with us.
It’s been tough for all of us in the club. We know how much she wanted to be with us, but she couldn’t because of her illness. Whenever we came to practise, we joined our hands and prayed for her.” People in her hometown of Magabeni, near Durban, can’t believe Makhosi is back. “For years there were rumours I’d died,” she says.
“For years everywhere I went people would stare at me. Now they can’t believe I’m back, that I’m the same person. Everyone is happy and excited for my healing.”
Image credit: Drum