Skin cancer robbed this Western Cape mom of part of her skull when she was pregnant with her son

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Angelique Jonas with her daughter, Avah, son, Ethan, and husband, Rodney. While pregnant with Ethan, she battled melanoma lesions found on her brain. (PHOTO: Supplied)
Angelique Jonas with her daughter, Avah, son, Ethan, and husband, Rodney. While pregnant with Ethan, she battled melanoma lesions found on her brain. (PHOTO: Supplied)

She can’t recall the last time she had a good night’s rest. Her nine-month-old son keeps her up at night but Angelique Jonas doesn’t mind. She’s just grateful they’re both alive – a year ago it wasn’t clear if they’d make it.

Angelique (31) was just six weeks into her pregnancy when oncologists discovered four lesions on her brain.

Cancer, she was told – and the lesions, as the tumours are called – were causing pressure and bleeding on the vital organ so she needed an emergency operation.

Then came another shock: it was melanoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the cells that gives skin its colour. Melanoma typically starts in the skin before it spreads to other organs, including the brain. But tests showed there were no other cancer cells in Angelique’s body, making hers a rare case.

Angelique, who’s from George in the Western Cape, was desperate to protect her unborn baby. She and her husband Rodney (40) wanted a sibling for their daughter, Avah (7), and had suffered a miscarriage the previous year. 

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Angelique was overjoyed to be pregnant again after suffering a miscarriage. (PHOTO: Supplied)

But the oncologists were clear: if she didn’t have a craniotomy, an operation in which a piece of the skull is removed to take out as much of the melanoma as possible, she wouldn’t make it.

Although the anaesthesia was risky for the baby, Angelique went through the three-hour procedure, where a bone flap was temporarily removed from her skull. And doctors managed to drain the blood from her brain to relieve the pressure.

She can’t believe a headache landed her in hospital. “I thought, ‘I’m supposed to go home because I just came in here for a headache’,” Angelique tells YOU. “But I woke up with a half-shaved head and tubes that measured the pressure on my brain.”

When she woke up with her head throbbing in March last year Angelique was determined not to take painkillers. She didn’t want to do anything to put her unborn baby at risk.

“I had this unbearable pain on the right side of my head, it was so bad I couldn’t talk,” she recalls.

It wasn’t long before she felt her head would explode and Rodney rushed her to the emergency room at the Mediclinic George.

“I was in tears. I couldn’t make sense of it because it was the first time I’d experienced a headache like this,” Angelique says.

After the craniotomy, she spent four days in the hospital’s intensive-care unit and received physiotherapy to keep her blood flowing and her muscles flexible.

When doctors later told her the bleeding and swelling was caused by melanoma she felt numb. They couldn’t find any spot on her skin where it could’ve originated as is usually the case with this type of cancer.

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Angelique had 29 stitches after her first craniotomy in which a piece of her skull was ­removed to relieve pressure on her brain. (PHOTO: Supplied)

But she wasn’t going to succumb to the uncertainty. “I thought of my daughter. I didn’t want her to see me like this and that was when the fighting spirit kicked in,” she says.

Angelique went home with half her head shaved and a large C-shaped scar curving behind her ear. “Avah didn’t really notice the scar,” she says. “She stared at my eye, which was bruised because of the surgery, but Rodney was shocked when he first saw it because of the number of staples.”

When Angelique was stronger, she had to travel to Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town for stereotactic radiotherapy treatment, a process in which doctors target radiation beams at the tumours to reduce them.

She stayed with family friends in the city for 10 days to be close to the hospital for her treatment while Rodney held the fort at home with Avah.

“My colleagues played such a huge role,” she says of her support system. “Together with two of my best friends and my mother, they really supported me a lot.”

Meanwhile doctors recommended she boost her immune system through immunotherapy to fight the cancer – but one of the treatment’s side effects was that it could lead to a spontaneous abortion.

Angelique, who was 17 weeks pregnant by then, was devastated. “I couldn’t cope with the thought that I might not see this baby after I just started to feel it moving inside me,” she says.

She discussed her treatment plan with her oncologist and they decided to wait with the immunotherapy because her tumours had shrunk, thanks to her various treatments.

“Eventually I was 30 weeks pregnant and still no immunotherapy and that conversation fell by the wayside,” she says.

Then came some joy: Ethan-Luc was born via Caesarean section at 38 weeks, weighing a healthy 3,6kg.

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She was thankful to be able to celebrate her birthday in July. (PHOTO: Supplied)

In January, two months after Ethan-Luc’s birth, Angelique had another operation to remove more of the melanoma, which grew while she was pregnant.

“I felt pressure on the right side of my head and a scan showed one of the lesions had grown and was pushing against one of the thin layers of tissue that covers the brain,” she says.

This time the surgery took five hours and Angelique spent three days in ICU before she was moved to a general ward where she received more physio treatment.

In March another scan showed most of the cancer was gone, apart from two lesions located behind her eye.

She hasn’t started immunotherapy yet and the oncologist has suggested more stereotactic radiotherapy.

Angelique is fighting with her medical aid to get it to pay for the treatment. “Their argument is that if it didn’t work the first time, it won’t make much of a difference now,” she says.

Doctors are hesitant to surgically remove the lesions as they’re located in a dangerous part of her brain. But she can live with the tumours for now, Angelique says. “It’s not bothering me. I haven’t had any headaches for months and I’m doing much better than last year.”

She also has a healthy baby to keep her in good spirits. “It’s such a joy to have a little boy. His second name, Luke, means giver of light. And that’s exactly what he does,” she says.

Angelique was on special leave for several months before going on maternity leave but she’s back in the swing of things at work.

Physically, she bounced back quickly, she says, but the emotional scars are taking longer to heal. “I keep asking, ‘Why do I have to go through this?’ It’s a roller coaster.”

More on melanoma

Melanoma is less common than other skin cancers, but it’s the most dangerous.

It is the fifth-most prevalent ­cancer among South African men and the sixth-most prevalent cancer among women, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa.

Although the exact cause of melanoma isn’t clear, genetics and exposure to ultraviolet ­radiation from sunlight or tanning lamps and beds increases the risk.

Angelique says she didn’t spend much time in the sun as a child and there’s no history of skin cancer in her family.

Extra SOURCES: MAYOCLINIC.ORG, WEBMD.COM

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