In the space of a year her life changed completely: she’d married, bought a home with her husband and given birth to triplets. There was little time to think of herself.
Her house in Boksburg, Gauteng, was in a constant state of chaos: babies Emma, Josh and Jade demanded breastfeeding every two hours and Reghardt, her five-year-old from a previous relationship, needed attention too.
But Maritza Salinger didn’t mind. This was motherhood – and she was fortunate that her husband, Stephen, was a real hands-on dad.
Then in May last year life threw the family a curveball: Maritza was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Stephen and I went out for dinner the evening after the diagnosis,” she recalls. “We had a good cry and I told him, ‘If it had to be one of us, then I’m glad it’s me.’ There are parents out there who are far worse off because it’s their child who has cancer.”
The couple tell their story in the living room of their home, constantly interrupted by one of the 15-month-old triplets.
But there’s little that can wipe the smile off the parents’ faces: just two days ago they were told Maritza is cancer-free. It’s been a hell of a journey, though.
Maritza had 16 chemotherapy sessions, a double mastectomy and 31 radiation treatments.
“We’ve lived through more in two years than most couples do in 20,” Maritza says.
But she’s not bitter – she’s just grateful to be healthy again.
“I think any mother’s greatest fear is for her children. You want to be there to raise your kids.”
Maritza (now 34) and Stephen (now 32) met when Reghardt was 18 months old.
They were to marry in February 2017 and, because she wasn’t ovulating regularly, she started hormone treatment before their wedding because they badly wanted to have children together.
Sure enough, four months after the wedding they received the happy news – and instead of one little heartbeat, there were three.
“At first we were worried that Reghardt would feel left out but when we brought the babies home he was so excited,” she says.
The babies were full term and healthy – unusual for a multiple pregnancy – and mom and tots were discharged after just six days in hospital. Emma climbs onto her mom’s lap.
“Emma was born first and she’s extremely bossy. When she wants something, she wants it now,” Maritza says.
Josh scooches across the carpet on his bottom. “He’s so lazy. The girls are running all over the place but he still wants to be carried,” Maritza adds. Jade, who’s “calm like her dad”, comes over to Stephen, carrying her bottle and blanket. Things are good now, says Maritza, whose hair has started to grow again after the treatment.
But the past months have been tough and Stephen grows sombre when the subject of his wife’s cancer comes up.
She’d felt the lump under her right armpit soon after the birth of the triplets but thought it was just a milk duct, she says.
After a while she started feeling lumps in the right breast too.
“I kept thinking in the back of my mind I need to have it checked out but life was just too hectic,” she recalls.
She told Stephen – a contract manager at a company that supplies industrial equipment – that she didn’t think it was serious.
When her maternity leave ended in April last year, Maritza returned to her job at a Boksburg steel and valve company, where she’s in charge of procurement.
But the lumps were causing increased discomfort so on 10 May she went to see her GP. He referred her to a specialist. On Monday, 14 May, the specialist did a sonar and a mammogram.
“When the doctor saw the lumps on the sonar, she started asking all kinds of questions, such as, ‘Did you come alone?’ and questions about my medical aid. She wanted to do a mammogram right away.”
The following day, a Tuesday, she returned to the doctor’s rooms with her mom, Hendrina Wessels.
“The doctor said I needed a biopsy.” That Friday it was official: Maritza had stage 3 breast cancer, which had already spread to her lymph nodes. The shock was immense and the fear overwhelming.
“It was a hard time for Reghardt,” Maritza says. “My mom had been diagnosed with colon cancer the previous year. She had her last chemo in December 2017, around the time the triplets were born.
“So Reghardt knew what was coming – just like his grandmother, his mom would have to go to hospital a lot and come home tired.” On 4 June, Maritza had the first of her 16 chemo treatments at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg.
The first four doses were so-called red chemo – the most aggressive dose. She struggled with intense nausea, fatigue and hair loss.
“I wept as Stephen swept up my hair. My maternity leave was barely over and I didn’t know how I’d cope with work and the babies. You do your best but you feel so guilty because you can’t give your kids all the attention they need.”
During that time, Reghardt often stayed with his grandparents. “I didn’t want him to see me so ill,” Maritza says. Her three sisters, mother-in-law and two stepsisters all pitched in to help.
“My sisters took over running my household so I could sleep after chemo. They helped Reghardt with his homework, bathed and fed the babies and made sure Stephen was okay.”
Maritza battled a lot with the physical changes that came with the treatment. She was bald, her face was red and swollen from cortisone and she gained weight.
“You don’t recognise yourself in the mirror,” she says. “You don’t feel like yourself.”
The second, so-called white round of chemo, which she had every Thursday, was more bearable and she could return to work. This lasted three months. Stephen had to help keep everything together.
“You just carry on, one day at a time,” he says. “To a great extent the kids were a distraction – it helps to prevent you from overthinking things.”
Maritza was scheduled to have a mastectomy on 6 December last year.
“Physically the chemo was punishing. But emotionally, preparing for the operation was far worse.”
During that time, they heard Maritza’s mother’s cancer had returned. “Thankfully she’s a strong person,” Maritza says. Surgeons were able to give Maritza a partial breast reconstruction using tissue from elsewhere on her body.
Six weeks after her mastectomy she started radiation therapy five days a week. Then, finally, the recent good news: there’s no trace of cancer in her body. “I actually can’t believe it’s all over,”
Stephen says emotionally. Maritza smiles. “I’d always known my husband was a good man but I never realised how good. After 18 months, I no longer look like the woman he married. But he’s still here.” Maritza takes his hand. “We don’t go out much because we can’t cart around three camping cots in the bakkie. And if we do go somewhere together as a couple, we miss our little ones.”
Stephen is still terrified the disease will return but Maritza says she’s learnt to live with the fear.
“I’m praying really hard that I’ll get to raise my babies. Anything can happen to anyone, at any time. You can’t live in fear.
“Do what you want to do, take chances. What are you waiting for?”