“How my breast reduction surgery saved my life”

Nompilo 'Ntathu' Zungu (PHOTO: Ntathu Zungu Instagram)
Nompilo 'Ntathu' Zungu (PHOTO: Ntathu Zungu Instagram)

For years she spent thousands of rands on underwear.

Her breasts were so large she was forced to have her size 36K bras custom-made but it wasn’t just the staggering cost of her undergarments that hurt Nompilo “Ntathu” Zungu. There was also the unbearable back pain and the unwanted attention she was forced to put up with.

“Guys would approach me, and I’d say, ‘Hi’, but they would say, ‘Hi’ to my boobs. I felt sexualised and my cleavage was always in the way – even shopping was a hassle,” Ntathu says.

She’d learnt to grin and bear it but over time it took a toll so she decided to do something about it. But when she told her family she was going under the knife to reduce the size of her breasts, they were a little less than supportive.

“The feedback from my family was around how it might affect being in a relationship . They said things like, ‘No guy is going to want you with scars’ and ‘ You’re going to be scared o f undressing in the presence of others cause of the scars’,” she recalls.

“All the reasons had nothing to do with me. It was about other people and I was like, ‘Do you guys realise your reasons have nothing to do with my health?’” Undeterred by their opinions, she took the plunge and in late November had 4kg of breast tissue removed during a four-hour surgery at Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. We meet Ntathu a few weeks after her surgery. The 24-year-old is wearing a pretty silk pleated midi-dress. Underneath she says her breasts are still in bandages, and she’s in a lot of pain. Yet she has no regrets.

“My mom was incredibly happy for me. She could not believe I took the initiative, especially because I’m the thirdborn in the family. She thought it was brave,” she says with a smile. “I obviously thought about [the risks of] having the procedure, including my reduced chance to breastfeed if I have a baby. A friend’s mom had the procedure and gave me advice. I realised I could get rid of something that was making me insecure.”

But getting breast-reduction surgery is not a s simple as it sounds. When she had her first consultation with doctors in January 2015, her medical aid authorised the surgery three times.

However, the authorisation kept expiring because Ntathu couldn’t afford the R10 000 co-payment as she was a student at the time. “That’s when I opted for pro bono surgery in a public hospital. In 2018, I went to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Everything there is reasonable,” she says. “I consulted with the doctor and he confirmed I needed a reduction. He also recommended I see a dietician at the hospital.

“I went there for food lessons and attended classes that were meant to help me get on the right side of the BMI scale. They wanted to see if the size of my boobs was because of my weight or not. I was asked to lose 30kg. “It was a very dark period because I changed my diet and lost weight, but my boobs just kept getting bigger and heavier. So I stopped.”

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Her breasts started growing before she hit her teens, she recalls. Ntathu, who has three sisters, says she’s the only one in her family with oversized breasts. “Puberty did not let me breathe,” she jokes. “I got my boobs in Grade 2, I was eight.” Her developing body made her a target for bullies, and she became socially insecure. “I was the joke of the school, the girl with the biggest boobs. I was bullied from primary school at the boarding school I attended. They would say, ‘If you have Cornflakes with no milk, SMS Ntathu to 31515’ or ‘You make [American talk-show host] Wendy Williams look like she has peas’.”

She’d laugh with her schoolmates but alone in her room she’d “think about how hurtful it is”. Diet after diet followed, but her breasts continued to grow. “People would say, ‘Lose weight and your boobs will get smaller’. “I’ve always been a big girl, I tried losing weight, but the growth was hormonal – it’s not genetic in any way. My sister has big boobs, but nothing like mine.”

She was 19 when she knew she wanted smaller breasts, but it took her five years to get the help she needed. After discontinuing treatment at Bara, she went back to private consultations and hustled to get the R10 000 for the co-payment. “I pushed. You know how they say things in Jo'burg happen faster? That’s what happened,” says Ntathu, who has a Bachelor of Science degree in physiology and anatomy from the University of Cape Town. Ntathu, who also completed her honours degree in health sciences at Wits University, now works at a company that manufactures advanced wound management products.

“I got a loan and saved from my salary to afford it. The procedure was approved after three days, and the operation happened five days later.” On 28 November last year, surgeons removed 4kg from her breasts during the mammoplasty, as breast-reduction surgery is called. The cost of the procedure, including co-payment, was around R91 000. The surgery was a success, but Ntathu suffers from post-surgery trauma, which is common in the first few weeks after surgery. “I wake up crying every night, I have nightmares and panic attacks.”

She’s yet to go for counselling as she is still recovering from the surgery, but luckily the company she works for developed a new product for advanced wound therapy.

“They gave me a sample free of charge, so I market the product for them when I go to follow-up appointments. It is supposed to speed up the healing process. Once the inflammation has gone down, I will be a C or D cup. I will only know for certain after I’ve healed.” Ntathu always felt weighed down by her breasts but now she’s feeling light as a feather.

“I have lived in Cape Town for four years, but I haven’t been to Table Mountain because of back pain. I’d feel as if I’m suffocating sometimes because I would wear two bras for support. Imagine carrying a 2kg bag of mielie meal on each boob – that is what it felt like.

 “I’m in a better space now. I think I can achieve more now than when I had bigger boobs,” she adds. She feels so good about herself she’s ready to dip her toe into the dating pool. “I want a guy who won’t be attracted to my body as it’s not static,” she says. Some of her family still need to come around to the new Ntathu but she’s confident she did what was right for her. “It’s something I had been wanting for so long. One day I will look back and be like, ‘I did that’. Within a week I was able to change my life.”

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