18 May 2018

Former Banyana midfielder Makhosi Luthuli on her struggle with Lymphoma

She was once a terror on the soccer field – a dynamo in green and gold aptly nicknamed “Troublemaker” because of her ability to mess with the opposing team.

She was once a terror on the soccer field – a dynamo in green and gold aptly nicknamed “Troublemaker” because of her ability to mess with the opposing team. But former Banyana Banyana midfielder Makhosi Luthuli (45) is a shadow of her once vibrant self.

Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, has taken over her life – as well as her face. Broke, alone and sick, she has been battling the debilitating cancer since it was diagnosed in 2011.

“When it started, I didn’t pay much attention,” she says. “I thought it was just a swelling on my upper jaw. But I got worried when the swelling grew rapidly.”

The former national star now lives with her nephew, Sihle Luthuli (32), in KwaPhumphele, in Mariannhill near Pinetown, Durban. Her only child, her son Mfundo Luthuli (20), lives with her sister, Teresa Dlamini, at Magabeni, 50 kilometres south of Durban.

Living with lymphoma is very difficult, she says. When news first surfaced of her condition, rumours spread that she had died. “I was sad but I didn’t let it affect me too much,” she says.

“I knew it was just malicious people saying these things. “I’m not scared of dying but I am not dying any time soon. Cancer has not taken my talent and skill away from me. I am still Makhosi, the Troublemaker,” she says.

When Makhosi first noticed the swelling on her face she went to a local hospital and was referred to King Dinuzulu Hospital in Durban for scans. She was then sent to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital “where I was eventually diagnosed with lymphoma cancer,” she says.

As defiant as she is about her disease, it’s clear the cancer has taken its toll. “I cannot breathe because my nose has been disfigured,” she says. “I cannot speak properly because my mouth has been affected. My jaws have been affected too – I’m losing teeth and I can’t eat properly. “My left eye and ear have closed and my kidneys have also been damaged because of the treatment.”

Makhosi started chemotherapy and radiation therapy in 2012, which helped slow the march of cancer through her body but has not killed the rampant cells altogether. She is still receiving treatment and is desperate for more help.

“In February I became so desperate that I barged into the mayor’s office without an appointment to request assistance,” she says. “The mayor did not hesitate. She quickly consulted with [KwaZulu-Natal businessman] Sandile Zungu, who donated R100 000 towards my treatment,” Makhosi says. eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede tells DRUM she was “touched by [Makhosi’s] bravery”.

“That’s why I decided to contact businesspeople like Sandile to help,” she says. Makhosi survives on a disability grant of R1 690.

“This is for supplements because my immune system needs to be boosted,” she explains. “I also use it for transport, groceries, medication, toiletries and other necessities. The grant is not enough because I have special needs. Because of my condition, I can eat only soft food.”

Yet despite her hardships she hasn’t given up on life – or on her first love, soccer. She started a football academy for kids in 2011 – the same year she received her cancer diagnosis – in order to give back to her community. “I spend a lot of time on the field in sport development,” she says. “I also do the paperwork for the team and the rest of the time I do house chores, such as cleaning, cooking and laundry.

“I hardly go to town because when I’m in public, people tend to stare at me.” Makhosi tries to stay positive and has accepted her condition as best she can. “I know there are people who are worse off than me, so I can’t live my life complaining. When I finally get healed I want to help others in a similar position.”

She will need a team of doctors who specialise in this type of cancer to perform the operation she needs, she says. Johannesburg-based paediatric oncologist Dr Jennifer Geel says while treatment of the kind Makhosi needs is available in South Africa, “the only problem is that all the lymphoma cancer doctors have moved into private healthcare. So, while there are doctors available to do the operation, it is extremely expensive as patients can only do it privately.”

Makhosi remains optimistic: “I understand that my condition is complicated but I also believe help is on its way. I am going to beat this and my life will get back to normal. This is the battle I have to fight and I know I’ll come out of it as a conqueror.”

Makhosi joined Banyana Banyana in 1997 and was the first South African woman to be trained as a coach for a national side. She finished her first coaching course in 2002 under her mentor, late SA soccer stalwart Ted Dumitru. She still needs to move up the various levels but believes she can do it – her disability is not a hindrance, she says.

“I feel sad because at my age and with my experience I should have had my own house and car. I should have been very far in life.

“I joined the Banyana squad at 25. At the time I was studying public administration at the Mangosuthu University of Technology but I didn’t finish that qualification because my parents didn’t have enough money. “Later I went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I got a Bachelor of Social Science degree.” She believes she was “dumped” from Banyana in 2005 when she still had lots of play left in her but she has no hard feelings and plenty of fond memories. “I can’t disassociate myself from Banyana Banyana – I’m part of that history. I wore the number 8 jersey and made huge contributions there. I miss playing, I miss my teammates and I miss that environment. Even if things haven’t gone in my favour, I know I served my country.”

Durban tycoon Sandile Zungu hopes the money he pledged will go some way towards helping Makhosi. But he knows it’s not enough. The businessman made the donation through the Zodwa Zungu Foundation, which he set up in 2016 after the cancer death of his wife, Zodwa.

Sandile pledges something every year to mark his birthday and Makhosi’s appeal coincided with his 51st birthday. Makhosi is grateful and hopes she’ll get the treatment she needs, so she can leave her home without worrying about the stares of strangers.