Boland student teacher inspires after overcoming cancer twice

2019-02-12 15:19
Lee-James Cupido has not allowed cancer to stop him from pursuing his dreams. (photo:Supplied)

Lee-James Cupido has not allowed cancer to stop him from pursuing his dreams. (photo:Supplied)

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“I can’t describe it to anyone. You get the chemotherapy for three hours at a time and it puts you to sleep. But when you wake up, it feels as if your soul’s been pulled from your body.”

Lee-James Cupido, from Wellington near Cape Town, had been washing his aunt’s car for pocket money when he was overcome with intense pain, he recalls. He was just 16 years old and in Grade 11 when he had to be rushed to hospital in nearby Paarl one Friday afternoon where he had to have emergency surgery.

“A part of my colon had ruptured because of a tumour,” Lee-James (22) tells us.

He’s a fourth-year teaching student at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

That fateful day in Wellington had been the start of a long, hard road with the dreaded C-word, of which he still carries the scars. Though they’d removed a part of his colon, doctors prescribed chemotherapy which he had to undergo for the first six months of his matric year.

“It was from Mondays to Fridays, then I had to rest for a week. So it was hard and I missed a lot of school,” he says.

His parents, Nathan and Jacky, went with him to the first few sessions but after that he had to walk to Wellington train station and make his own way to Tygerberg Hospital in Belville, Cape Town.

Lee-James, who’d been playing rugby from a young age, says focusing on his sport is what helped him through that difficult time.

In 2013 he was selected for the Craven Week team just before he fell ill.

“Even though I felt sick after the chemo sometimes, I’d head straight to rugby training. The rugby kept me motivated,” says Lee-James, who’s a former Huguenot High School pupil.

He says Lance Sendin, coach of the school’s first team, was a lifesaver during that time. “If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have stayed so motivated. I still see him as a mentor.”

Lee-James had wanted to study teaching but because he’d missed so much school, his marks weren’t good enough. So he decided to take a year off to repeat two of his subjects.

That year, 2015, the doctor also asked him if they should remove his entire colon because there weren’t guarantees that the cancer wouldn’t return.

“It was a really tough decision because I so badly wanted to keep playing rugby. There was also a chance I’d be selected for the WP Academy team in 2015. But I made peace with it all and opted to have the operation.”

In 2016 things started looking up. He started studying teaching and playing club rugby for Wellington.

“One day at practice I felt extremely tired. There was a whole week in which I couldn’t fall asleep at all – I’d lie in bed, eyes wide open. I wondered if it could be stress-related but I had no idea what was going on.”

He went to his aunt, who works in a clinic. She tested his blood pressure, which was sky-high. She immediately sent him to a doctor.

The doctor discovered that Lee-James’ kidneys were starting to fail. A tumour had been blocking the vessel leading between his kidney and his bladder.

Once again he needed cancer treatment. In January 2017 he started an intensive radiation and chemotherapy routine.

“It was really tough,” Lee-James says about the chemo. “I couldn’t touch anything cold, nor drink cold liquids. I was weak and emaciated. I’d get up and try walking a few steps but just faint.”

Marché Meyer, his girlfriend, was there for him every step of the way.

In August 2017 he motivated himself to become more positive. “I made peace with the fact that this is who I am.”

He joined a gym. “At first I was extremely weak and could only lift small weights. But I built up my strength and today I’m a personal trainer.”

He ended up winning the Mr Drakenstein title – a platform which he used to motivate others with his story.

“I often tell people when you’re lying on an operating table just before a huge operation, while it’s dead quiet and you’re waiting for the anaesthesia to kick in, there’s nothing more important in your life than getting well – and to have faith and trust that God will carry you through it. Nothing else – materialistic things, hate, money – matters.”

He says in retrospect he realised his first diagnosis was harder to bear because he hadn’t wanted people to know. “I was secretive about my illness and ashamed because I didn’t want people to look at me differently. At that stage I was also ignorant about the disease.

“But the second time I was open and honest with everybody. It was the best thing I could’ve done because it gave me a support network that carried me through.”

As a constant reminder, he’s had a tattoo done that says, “Everything can change in the blink of an eye. So forgive often and love with your whole heart.”


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