Matric girl with cancer still writes exams

2018-11-21 14:17
Gaby Kleinhans. (Photo: Supplied)

Gaby Kleinhans. (Photo: Supplied)

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She’s a bubbly teen, always smiling and gesturing wildly with her hands as she talks. Were it not for her unadorned crown and bare brows it’d be hard to tell she’s battling a rare form of cancer.

Despite the curveball life threw at her earlier this year, 18-year-old Gaby Kleinhans has managed to stay positive.

The matric learner had barely started her final high school year when she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in her right knee.

This wouldn’t only affect Gaby’s schoolwork – it was her goal to obtain her South African colours in netball this year.

A star on the netball court, Gaby had previously got her Western Province colours twice, when she was 16 and 17, but this year had her sights set on going national.

After a knee operation to remove the tumour, she was told she’d never be able to play the sport again.

But it's a small price to pay, she tells us when we meet with her in the home she shares with her father, Wayne (49), mother Karen (49), brother Kyle (27) and sister Adrian (21) in Kuils River, in Cape Town's northern suburbs.

Through the love and support of her family, friends and community, Gaby’s life has pretty much stayed the same and for that she’s thankful.

“I’m so positive,” she says. “I really don’t want to be negative.”

Her symptoms started earlier this year when she’d regularly experience a pinching sensation in her knee, “but it wasn’t anything major,” she says.

“It only happened when I played netball. But then after a while it became so bad I couldn’t even walk. Then in February it was my last match for the season and the pain was at its worst.”

Karen, who works in administration at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), took Gaby to see a physiotherapist but they were told she needed X-rays taken.

Gaby Kleinhans and boyfriend

When they had them taken in March, doctors at Netcare Kuilsriver Hospital suspected cancer. They referred the teen to a specialist at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Pinelands where a biopsy was done.

A week later, the biopsy results confirmed doctors’ suspicions – Gaby was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a cancer that often occurs in and around the bones.

“It felt like a death sentence. I was stressed out because the first thing that comes to mind with cancer is that you can die of it,” she remembers.

“I was crying and that was the only thing going through my mind. I can’t even explain how I felt that day.”

It wasn’t the family’s first brush with cancer. In 1999 Wayne’s father died of lung cancer and so the diagnosis was especially hard on him and Karen.

“For both my parents it was difficult,” says Gaby. “And at times it still is.”

To make matters worse, the family’s medical aid was depleted earlier this year and Gaby’s medical bills are racking up.

Each five-day chemo session costs them R7 000 and for the two-day cycle they have to cough up R1 500. They also owe the hospital money for doctors’ appointments, injections and blood tests.

But the support from the community has been overwhelming, Gaby says. Friends and family rallied to organise a raffle and fundraiser event, with all the proceeds going to Gaby. Even a local beauty salon joined to donate all the money made from an eyebrow threading special they were running to help cover her medical bills.

Gaby’s petite frame belies her fighting spirit. Even though she was warned by Dr Thomas Hilton, the specialist treating her, that the journey ahead would take its toll on her physically, Gaby was determined to partake in and complete as much of her Grade 12 year as possible.

A port was inserted in her left collarbone so she could receive her chemotherapy through a tube instead of a vein. At the beginning of May she started chemo but continued to attend school, hand in assignments and write exams, only staying absent when she really was too weak to manage more.

“I get chemo every third week, either for five days or two days straight. Obviously during that time I wouldn’t go to school and would then use the weekend to recover because chemo makes you very tired and sometimes nauseous.

“But if I felt better the following week I’d go to school and try to focus and do my homework. The teachers understood but I always tried to do the best I could. Some of the children used to bring work home for me and so I tried to hand in all my assignments.”

She used to love styling her hair and regularly had her eyebrows waxed so the hardest part for her was losing her hair and coming to terms with her new appearance.

“One morning I woke up and the hair was just all over my pillow. I went to school and by the end of the day it was a nest. When I brushed it out it was so tangled. That was when we just shaved it off.”

In the beginning she always wore a cap but friends encouraged her to embrace her new look.

“I always tell people it’s easier said than done. I’m the one who’s going to walk outside and have all these people look at me. Last week was the first time I went to school like this,” she says, pointing to her uncovered head.

In September she celebrated the culmination of her school career with her matric dance, to which she wore a stunning glittery gold gown.

“I was really nervous because I went for my knee operation in July and it took six weeks to get off my crutches. I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk without crutches. But the night turned out perfect.”

After the celebrations ended it was time for Gaby to knuckle down and prepare for her final exams.

Gaby Kleinhans and family

Wayne approached the school’s governing body in July to ask if Gaby could write three subjects this year and the other three next year. They agreed and so on October 23 she wrote the first paper of the three subjects – English, Afrikaans and Consumer Studies.

Completing her exams has been tough, she says.

During the second week of November, an infection caused her to miss out on two papers.

Because of the chemo Gaby’s blood count is low and she sometimes needs to have a blood transfusion. “When I was admitted to hospital I shared a room with a lady, even though I wasn’t supposed to share a room with anyone. I picked up the infection there and had to be isolated. My family had to wear masks when they visited me.”

She spent five days in hospital and ended up missing an English paper and her Consumer Studies exam. Both will be carried over to next year, when she’ll also write her mathematics, biology and physics papers.

She won’t be able to write the supplementary exams in March next year because her chemo sessions only end in January or February.

Gaby Kleinhans and friends

For now Gaby doesn’t really know what the future holds but her ordeal has left her with a desire to help others.

“I so badly want to do teaching or physiotherapy. I feel that after what I went through I’d like to do something that involves people and helping them recover.”

Read more on:    cape town  |  health
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