My close encounter with breast cancer


It's not easy to rewind the clock emotionally and fully remember the trauma of being diagnosed with breast cancer. But I feel it is important to share my story with women who have been through this terrifying ordeal, and with women who dread going for a check-up - be it a mammogram, an examination by a doctor, or self-examination. 

It's something I dreaded, but I'm grateful that I didn't allow fear to stop me from making, and keeping, the appointment. If I had, I would not be here to write this. 

When I felt a lump on my left breast in December 2006, my life stood still for a few minutes. I knew, I just knew that what I felt needed to be confirmed immediately.

I remember closely monitoring the expression in Dr Jenny Edge’s eyes when she examined me. My suspicion was confirmed. And so the biopsy and an urgent mammogram were done.

When I received the call from her surgery two days later, asking me to bring a friend with me when I came for the results, I knew my life was going to change radically. When I heard the four words “you have breast cancer” it's no exaggeration to say that I was thrown into a state of fear, shock and panic. 

In the next 48 hours, more tests were done: another mammogram; an ultrascan; blood tests; a visit to Dr Paul Skoll, the plastic surgeon; another consultation with Dr Edge; up and down the corridors and floors of CBM Hospital – it felt as if I was on some live reality show with adrenalin pumping through my veins.  At the same time I was still in utter shock, trying to cope by making stupid Gary Larson-type jokes to ease my loneliness and fear. 

Everything happened so quickly - I was walking fast, driving fast, eating fast and swallowing gallons of water fast - and decisions had to be made immediately.  The first time I was able to take a quiet break was when I went to the Klein Karoo for two weeks to prepare myself emotionally and physically for the big day of my mastectomy, on 7 January 2007. 

Once there my physical speed reduced, but my mind was still racing. What will I look like with one natural breast? Will I be sexually attractive to men again? Will people notice? How will I be able to look at myself in the mirror again? All these fearful questions, but I knew that I had no choice.  I also knew that all these considerations would pale in comparison to the next hurdle to be overcome after the operation: chemotherapy. 

I survived the surgery and tackled the next few months of chemo which were dreadful. After each session, your body and brain seem to stop. We all know the physical symptoms such as nausea, loss of appetite and exhaustion, but the deeper effect is equally unpleasant. Depression, for instance; and a total loss of enthusiasm for anything. Tearfulness, fear, loneliness, vulnerability.

But like the other side-effects of chemo, the emotional ones also eventually drift away and one can stand up again and face the world with a new hairstyle and colour, a new attitude to mortality, a new zest for life, new self-respect, thankful for having been given another chance, and gratitude for family and friends. 

I did not want to die, I wanted to live and explore life with all its obstacles. I wanted to know that I could look forward to travelling the world, to taking on challenges and making a success of my life. 

I look back now, more than four years later and in good health, and I am grateful that I acted immediately when I felt that lump, that I didn't ignore it, and that I took responsibility for my life. It would have been so easy to go the route of denial, hoping that the lump would disappear, but acting in spite of my fear is what kept me alive. 

The biopsies, scans and mammograms are non-negotiable. I want to salute all women who do not live in fear, but value their lives enough to go for their annual checks, and self-examine their breasts every month. I am much stronger today, with a positive outlook. Breast cancer is a deadly disease, but I have beaten it. So, right now, I salute myself too.

 by Annelie Marais, October 2011

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