After her own battle against breast cancer Wilma van der Bijl, still as gorgeous as when she was crowned Miss South Africa in 1987, is now reaching out to other women who have cancer.
Wilma lived through some of her darkest moments when cancer was diagnosed in June 2005. Shortly thereafter she underwent a double mastectomy.
She's outspoken about what she has been through and is keen that other women have regular breast examinations and do everything they can to stay healthy.
Although her cancer was picked up while still in the early stages she was shocked when she was diagnosed.
"I didn't fit the profile at all," she says. "I was 42 at the time and in good health - I don't smoke, I'm not overweight and cancer doesn't run in my family so I had no reason to suspect I might be at risk. But just before diagnosis I was tired all the time and no matter how much I slept it was never enough.
At the same time my right breast didn't feel 100 per cent. I think subconsciously we're aware of what's going on in our bodies and breast cancer served as my wake-up call."
But a mastectomy followed by a bout of chemotherapy is bound to knock any woman's strength and it's hardly surprising that after her treatment Wilma's strength of character was tested to the limit.
"I suffered really bad depression and severe complications from the chemotherapy," she recalls. "But my children were six and seven at the time and even though I felt absolutely sick and spent I knew I had to find the resolve to live for them and my husband."
Even then it took all the strength she could muster when doctors found she had ductal carcinoma. "Losing a breast couldn't compare with the alternative of death. I'm more than just a breast.
"I know it might sound peculiar and many people won't relate to this but I'm glad for the warning. I take much better care of myself now and make sure I live every day to the full. Whenever I can I encourage other women to get checked on an annual basis. The inconvenience of a mammogram is nothing compared with the drama and anguish of a mastectomy.
"I'm so glad my cancer was diagnosed early. If it had been any later the consequences would have been much more serious. I'm also grateful I opted for reconstructive surgery immediately after the mastectomy and would urge other women to seriously consider this option.
'This worked for me'
Wilma has several suggestions on how to best get through your cancer treatment.
"For starters you need to trust the team treating you," she says. "You're at your most vulnerable and you need all the support you can get. "I'm so grateful to the doctors and nurses who helped me. I appreciate the open and respectful way they dealt with all my questions and fears.
"On a more practical note, you really must get moving as soon as you can after a mastectomy. Wait for the physiotherapist to give you the all-clear, then do the exercises to keep your muscles from wasting away.
But don't be tempted to drive too soon - you'd be surprised how exhausting it is.
"It's also important to remember that everybody's treatment and recovery are different so you shouldn't compare yourself with other patients or you may end up feeling hopeless.
I never thought I'd bounce back but, although it takes time, you come through the experience and regain your energy and lust for life."
Wilma's tips on managing chemotherapy:
- Sleep before you go in for chemo.
- Take your medication at the prescribed times.
- You might not feel too bad initially but be warned - it could hit you later.
- Eat healthily and make sure your diet includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Drink lots of water.
- Don't plan anything for at least three days after the chemo. I always tried to have my chemotherapy on a Friday so I had the weekend to rest.
- Cut your hair really short when it begins to fall out otherwise it creates a real mess.
- Buy lots of stylish bandanas for your bare head so you can still make a fashion statement.
- Don't go into the sun after you've had chemo as your skin will blemish easily.
- Your memory takes a beating and you won't remember what happened yesterday. It's a combination of many factors and it does improve so don't worry.
Wilma's tips on managing radiation therapy:
- Rest well the day before you undergo radiation and try to have it first thing in the morning so you have the rest of the day ahead of you.
- Dust the area with Maizena beforehand.
- It seems to make the skin less sensitive.
- Wear loose shirts and no bra.
- Don't have a warm bath or shower before or after sessions as this will irritate your skin.
- Don't use creams or oils on the treated area. If your skin is very dry chat to your doctors about what you can use.
- Any burn marks will disappear slowly but surely.
- Ask the medical team to do the tattoo marker under your arm, not between your breasts where you'll see it for the rest of your life.
- You'll be tired so don't plan a hectic weekend.
For more information on breast cancer or for details of your nearest Reach for Recovery support group visit www.cansa.org.za or www.reach4recovery.org.za
(Edited version of article originally written for Pulse magazine)
- (Health24, updated October 2012)
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