Updated 12 September 2017

'I had no idea my son’s eye colour meant he had cancer'

In December 2014, Phumeza Mdabe's son Mpilo was diagnosed with Bilateral Retinoblastoma – a cancer of the eye.

When actress and TV personality, Phumeza Mdabe’s son Mpilo was diagnosed with cancer, her world came to a standstill. “The word cancer never even crossed our minds,” she says.

'It was hell watching our son go through so much pain'

Mpilo was born with abnormally dark pupils, but Phumeza and her husband, musician Mnqobi “Shota” Mdabe assumed his eye colour would change over time. As the months went by they realised Mpilo couldn’t see properly. Mpilo’s eyes became squint and his eyes would have a white glow whenever he was underneath light. By the time Mpilo was one, his sight had become even worse. “We never thought or wanted to imagine it was anything serious,” Phumeza says.

Read more: 5 Most Common Cancers… And How You Can Outsmart Them

They were referred to a specialist in December 2014, who diagnosed Mpilo with Bilateral Retinoblastoma – a cancer of the eye. By the end of December Mpilo had started his first cycle of chemo, and underwent bone marrow tests and several other tests to double check that the cancer had not spread. The tests showed that it was contained in his eyes. Doctors, however, were concerned that the cancer would eventually spread to his brain.

In January 2015, Mpilo had his first operation to have his right eye removed. “We had to learn about prosthetic eyes. The thought of having to take it out to clean it and put it back was horrifying,” Phumeza says. Mpilo also had a port inserted for chemo treatment as the nurse struggled to find a vein to put a drip in. “It was hell watching our son go through so much pain,” says Phumeza.

Mpilo now in remission

After six cyles of chemo, the cancer was still not responding to treatment. They were then referred to a specialist in Cape Town, where Mpilo would undergo radiation therapy. Despite numerous treatments, the cancer didn’t respond as the doctors expected. Phumeza and Shota had no choice but to have Mpilo’s left eye removed as the tumour would soon spread to his brain.

Read more: Doctors Thought This Teen Was Pregnant, But It Was Cancer

In October 2016, Mpilo was officially cleared and is now in remission. Phumeza says they feel incredibly blessed to still have Mpilo in their lives. “He’s very naughty and amazes us with his hearing. Looks like we have an upcoming musician on our hands,” jokes Pumeza.

Pumeza says the biggest lesson she learnt was not take anything for granted. “We need to pay more attention to our kids even if it looks like a small thing,” she explains. Phumeza is now an ambassador for CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation and will be travelling throughout the country during September to raise awareness about the importance of early diagnosis of cancer.

This article originally appeared on


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