At just 20, Simone van Kraayenburg found out that she was the youngest South African ever to be diagnosed with Myelodsplatic Syndrome (MDS), a bone marrow cancer - primarily a disease of the elderly (most patients are older than 65).
In 2010, while in England, she found out she had stage 3 MDS. Scared, and with very little knowledge about her specific cancer, she wanted to go home to be surrounded by her support structure.
“My doctor wanted me to stay in the UK for treatment as he was very interested in my case, but I simply said no because I need my family and friends for this one.
“He also told me a transplant is the only potential cure. I packed up my life and flew back to South Africa four days later,” explains van Kraayenburg.
Arriving back in South Africa she opted for additional opinions, and was told that chemotherapy would be ineffective and that the only other option will be a bone marrow transplant.
Unfortunately there were no matching donors in SA, but she was lucky enough to locate a matching donor in Germany.
“When there were no local donors, I knew I had to search outside the country, but felt guilty that this was going to cost my family about R500 000,” said van Kraayenburg.
‘I knew it before they told me’
Following her operation she had to go for a check-up, but explained how she knew something was wrong two weeks before she had to see the doctor.
“I knew it before they told me. I told my best friend two weeks before I went for my bone marrow biopsy check-up that I had relapsed.”
She continued to explain how scared she was – when she realised her first transplant, which was considered her “lifeline”, had failed to work.
The doctor explained to her that she had relapsed, and again, there was no local match.
However, once again a donor showed up to give her another chance at life – again from Germany.
“This time I pinned all my hopes on the process, because I knew it would be the last time,” she said.
She explained that her biggest motivation to go through the process again was her mother. She explained how the pain in her mother’s eyes was a stark reminder of how much her she was loved and needed.
“I told my friends that I wasn’t prepared to go through the process again, but changed my mind when I realised my mother was not ready to lose me.”
For the second time Germany provided a positive match – leading to a successful stem cell transplant in September 2012.
A survivor’s advice
When asked about her life after cancer, she explains how much more she has come to appreciate life, and how grateful she is to her donors. She’s currently documenting her journey in an autobiography, opening up about her “third chance at life”.
“Cancer has liberated me into a state I never knew was possible. I am so thankful for my journey.
“I would never have been able to this without my donor; she is my biggest hero, and she just doesn't know it yet. But I want to tell her in person; she deserves to hear it from me in person.
"I idolise her, which is why I got a tattoo in honour of her. I also honour my mother, who motivated me to get a second transplant, because I nearly gave up.
“The tattoo is my mother's handwriting, and the quote is for my donor, to keep the earth below my feet – from 21 September 2012 until it’s my time.”
“The Higher Power gave me my challenges, and I beat death twice. Life has just begun for me!”