Phumeza and Shota Mdabe speak out on their baby boy’s struggle with eye cancer and how they’ve healed

Phumeza and Shota Mdabe (PHOTO: Drum)
Phumeza and Shota Mdabe (PHOTO: Drum)

When they promised to love each other through the best and the worst of times, they had no idea what life had in store for them.

They were living their best lives – their careers were peaking, he’d finished the lobola process and they had just welcomed a bouncing baby boy. Then it all came crashing down for Phumeza (31) and Mnqobi “Shota” Mdabe (43).

Their seemingly healthy baby was diagnosed with eye cancer and what followed was years of pain, little success and, finally, acceptance.

The celebrity couple have had to take time out of the spotlight to look after their son but they’re now back in the grind. Phumeza plays Anele in SABC3’s Isidingo and has also collaborated with her hubby on a new song, Injabulo, which means happiness. “We’ve been through a lot and this is our time to be happy. Things are fine at home. We’re happy.”

When Mpilo was born he brought sunshine into their lives. “We were very happy,” Phumeza says. “Shota had just finished paying lobola, so it was a nice surprise.” But a year later their little boy was diagnosed with eye cancer. They were devastated.

Mpilo (now 6) was born two weeks before his due date, weighing 3,7kg. He was their pride and joy, but they worried about him.

“His irises were pitch black. I remember asking my wife why his eyes were awkward,” Shota recalls. “They weren’t warm.” As he grew older, Mpilo’s eyes became squint and whenever they took a photo of him, a white dot would appear in his eyes on the picture.

“Since I don’t know my biological father, I thought maybe his eye colour was changing to blue or green,” Phumeza says. They went to see an optometrist when Mpilo was a year old to get his squint fixed.

“He said the bridge of Mpilo’s nose is going to grow and pull his eyes back into the proper position.”

Yet three months later, they noticed their son was suddenly feeling his way around the house when he walked. “We thought he needed glasses.”

In December 2014 they took Mpilo back to the optometrist. “We wanted to get his eyes fixed as a Christmas present.” But he was referred to an eye specialist at Johannesburg Eye Hospital for further examination. Three days before Christmas Mpilo was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma.

The devastated parents were told the cancer had spread through the optic nerve on the right eye. “They said they can try to save the left eye but can’t promise us anything.”

Mpilo was referred to Life Fourways Hospital for MRI scans to check if the cancer had spread elsewhere in his body. “The cancer was at stage 4 – we thought he was already dying,” Phumeza recalls.

On 31 December, he started chemotherapy but doctors couldn’t save his eye. “I was looking at him thinking, ‘My son doesn’t know what awaits him’. He was about to lose his eye and there was nothing we could do to save it,” Shota says.

They wanted “the pain to go away” but they had to be strong for Mpilo and his three siblings, Sibusiso (25), Khumo (13) and Mpho (11). The two eldest kids are from Shota’s previous relationship.

Two years later, Mpilo’s health took a turn for the worse. “We had to fly to Cape Town to get radiation. Mpilo had been through chemo, but his eye was red,” Phumeza recalls. The couple was left with a tough decision when doctors told them he wasn’t responding to the treatment.

They chose to remove Mpilo’s other eye. “We wanted him to be free of cancer. He was in pain and it was also a danger to his life.” After the surgeries, Mpilo received prosthetic eyes that cost R50 000.

Despite all the hospital visits he was lively and kept their spirits up. “He was carrying on with his life. He was playing like any normal child,” Phumeza smiles. “We’d walk around the hospital with the drip in his arm. He didn’t want to sit on his bed. He would vomit and be out playing five minutes later. “He really helped us get through this.”

Their stars were shining brightly when they had to bow out of showbiz, Shota tells us. Phumeza was a presenter on Mzansi Magic’s Our Perfect Wedding, while her husband was gigging around the world.

“We were living our best lives, but God took us back to the beginning.” Shota cancelled bookings. “We needed the money for his treatment, but I couldn’t leave him and travel the world.”

The couple also had to sacrifice the finer things in life. “He thought I was being insensitive when I said we need to lose the cars to accommodate our financial situation,” Phumeza recalls.

“Boys love cars. He has his own taste in cars, and it wasn’t easy for him to let go.” As the medical bills piled up, they tightened the belt further by cutting down on movie nights and shopping sprees.

At times, Shota admits, it was hard to be home. “The house became so heavy. Sometimes I’d feel like turning around and not going home.” Mpilo’s health weighed heavily on them all and the family turned to God.

They’d pray three times a week, giving thanks for blessings and asking God to make them strong.

“We would read the Bible and pray,” Phumeza says. It’s their faith and Mpilo’s resilience that has kept them going. “He doesn’t know he’s blind. Sometimes he asks us why we tell people he’s blind because he isn’t. He says he can see,” Shota says, laughing.

The couple have started the Mpilo Foundation. “We want him to help other kids, to be on the forefront, because we can only imagine what a blind person goes through, but he understands it.” The foundation will focus on obtaining special toys for the visually impaired, artificial eyes and in time, education.

Mpilo, who’s been cancer-free for almost three years, has been accepted for Grade R at Holy Family College in Parktown. “We struggled to get him in a school as there aren’t enough schools for the blind. The government schools are full.” That’s why his parents want to build a state-of-the-art school for the visually impaired.

“Sometimes these kids end up not going to school because there aren’t enough schools. We just need financial support to help them and make them feel normal.”

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