October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – an initiative supported by The Blue Room.
Breast cancer is a reality and the statistics are shocking. In support of this initiative, we decided to interview a real-life breast cancer hero from our local community.
Maryke Hansen from The Blue Room team sat down with Linda, a resident in Melkbosstrand, who got very real about her life-changing journey with breast cancer and how it affected her life.
How did you discover you had breast cancer?
It was in 2009, I was 56 and we were on holiday in the Eastern Cape. One night in Port Alfred, I accidentally felt something weird. I then did a proper self-examination with my knowledge – from being a nurse – and I felt a lump. I was concerned immediately… I knew something was wrong. I tried not to think about it until we got home, but I couldn’t shake my concerned emotions.
I booked a mammogram, which couldn’t immediately give proper answers, so the next day we did a biopsy and the radiologist confirmed that I did, indeed, have breast cancer in my one breast. It felt like a bucket of cold water had been thrown in my face – I wasn’t ready for it. I had traces of cancer on my ribs – which were only picked up and removed later during surgery – and my pelvic bone. I already had stage 4 cancer.
Tell us more about your treatment journey
I had surgery very soon after the discovery – they had to perform a mastectomy of my right breast. During surgery the drainage pipe clogged, which lead the doctor’s to find that my heart only had 50% ejection fraction. Back at home my family had to help me clean my drainage bag and routinely help change my bandages – something I’m so humbled at, seeing that I have 2 sons and they never complained about doing this for their mom.
More or less 3 months after the surgery I started with chemotherapy, once a month. I had to go under the knife again before my chemotherapy could start – they discovered my veins were too narrow to receive treatment, so they had to insert an A-port. That resulted in chemo being extremely painful – it’s one of the most terrible memories I have of that time.
Three months after my last chemotherapy treatment, I started with radiation. During this time, I had to wear a prosthesis which was very heavy and uncomfortable. The cancer spots on my ribs and pelvic bone also resulted in bone strengthening treatment for 5 years.
In 2011, I had reconstructive surgery. The approval process to get this done took nearly 2 years.
In 2013, I had a breast reduction in my left breast, which wasn’t very successful.
Initially I had to go for check-ups every 6 months, which later turned into annual check-ups. The waiting time between the scan and getting the results were terrible. I was so anxious every time I had to go for check-ups, so much so that I skipped it in 2017.
How did you break the news to your family and what support did you have?
I told my husband first, and then my two sons. They were extremely shocked but immediately supportive. I met a social worker at the hospital and we had family sessions with her. I also had individual sessions with her. My family and friends absolutely carried me through this time. My first chemotherapy session was horrible. I was so scared, and I couldn’t face a room full of “dying strangers”. They had to give me something to help me calm down. Luckily, I wasn’t nauseous after my treatment, just extremely tired.
Support is key – don’t try to be brave and do this on your own. Ask someone to sit with you when you’re getting treatment. I only learned later that you must face the reality: own your sickness, talk about it and allow people to help you. It’s crucial on your road to recovery.
Many people believe that they’re “safe” because they don’t have a family history of breast cancer – do you have any history of breast cancer in your family?
We didn’t have any breast cancer in the family – other cancers yes, but not breast cancer. I went into menopause very soon, so I was put on hormone medication to relieve the symptoms of menopause. When they performed a test to determine the cause of my cancer they found it was due to my hormone medication. To this day I must drink medication every day to suppress all hormones functioning in my body – which is a ball game of its own.
How did your diagnosis and treatment effect your every-day life?
I stopped working when I started with the chemotherapy treatment, because I didn’t want to put on an “I’m okay-face” every day. I carried on performing my normal mom- and wife duties daily and kept myself busy with hobbies. I didn’t want to read up about anything breast cancer related at all. I tried to live a normal life. At first you keep on wondering “Why me?” but that passed quickly when I decided to live in faith and let God take control of my life. I thought I was “ready”, should God decide to come and get me – my kids were happy and out of the house and I lived a full, happy life. But God had other plans and I’m thankful for every day I get to spend with my family and friends.
Tell us about how you felt after they removed your breast.
Wearing the prosthesis was difficult. It was heavy and uncomfortable, and my breasts were lob-sided – hence why I had the breast reduction surgery in 2013. I was so happy that they could remove the cancer, but my self-confidence took a serious knock. I felt like less of a woman, but still extremely thankful that I survived. I always liked looking after myself and getting my hair and nails done, so I continued doing that. I also tried to dress in a way that didn’t draw too much attention to me.
Where are you now – 10 years later?
Unfortunately, as a result of my breast cancer and after 9 years in remission, I was diagnosed with bone cancer earlier this year. As mentioned earlier, I thought I was “ready” should I not survive my breast cancer, but finding out I have cancer again shattered my world because I now have a granddaughter I absolutely live for. I had radiation treatment and I’m receiving bone strengthening treatments monthly.
Getting cancer again was always in the back of my mind – it doesn’t matter how positive you try to be. The fear never leaves your side – I had to give my fear to God every single day. But this time round I know to talk about my feelings and to live a full, happy life. I go on vacations with my family and I try to enjoy every day. Life really is too short to not live out the best life you can.
What is your message to other women?
Know your body and go for check-ups – regardless of your age or family history of cancers. Ask for a sonar should they discover anything that looks remotely strange. You can’t be too cautious – there really isn’t something prominent to tell you you have cancer, you can feel in perfect health when discovering you have breast cancer.
What I think is most important though is to never ever give up hope.
Walk in God’s footsteps and spend enough quality time with God and your loved ones. Say thank you for your life everyday – as any day could be your last day. Cancer is a reality and even though my story isn’t necessarily a “story of hope”, I do feel lucky to be here to tell you that until now – I have survived and God blessed me with an incredible life.
Maryke’s closing thoughts:
Spending time with Linda opened my eyes to the reality of cancer and her story is, in fact, a story of hope. Linda is living her life as a huge blessing to her loved ones and has an adorable granddaughter she can look after. I also believe that things could’ve been much worse hadn’t she had the knowledge to do a proper self-examination. I urge you to react quickly and get the help and support that is so readily available.
Ladies, click here, to educate yourself on breast cancer and how to self-examine.
Written by Maryke Hansen, Design Studio Coordinator: The Blue Room