Cancer Smancer – Fighting Cancer with a Smile
My cancer experience had a rather ridiculous start. My son, who was 5 at the time, complained of a sore stomach and an itchy butt. After unsuccessfully trying the normal deworming medicine, I eventually took him to our local GP. A month earlier I had found a lump in my right breast, but because it was not painful, I had not given it a second thought. My twin sister had at least 9 lumps removed from her breasts and they were all benign. We also had no history of any form of cancer in my family, so the lump in my breast did not even feature in my list of worries. By the time I took my son to the doctor for his itchy butt the lump had grown so big that it was rubbing against my bra strap, so as we were leaving the doctors, as an afterthought, I asked the doctor if it would be possible to remove this irritating lump. That was Thursday 3rd June 2004.
I arrived at 6am on the morning of the 10th June 2004 for the operation. My sister and ex-husband were there for support. At 7am I was wheeled into theatre and that’s when my world as I knew it was changed forever. I remember waking up from the operation with plaster right across my chest. Funny enough, my first thought was “What a lot of plaster for a little lump under my arm, the medical aid is going to have a fit”. Then I looked into the eyes of my surgeon and could see she had been crying!! She put her arms around me and all she said to the unasked question in my eyes was “yes”. When I got back to the ward, one look at my sister and ex, I realised that this was not a dream, this was reality.
I decided then and there to be honest with the kids and not to lie to them about the reality of the situation. This is a decision I have never regretted. I was 10 when my dad died and I had been kept in the dark as to how sick he was, so I never got the chance to say goodbye or come to terms with the loss. I did not want my kids to have the same experience.
I have always had a different sense of humour, and this came in handy now with my diagnosis. The day before my operation there was this joke going around that I was going to become the new Pamela Anderson, with double D’s. After the reality that Heather actually has cancer, I was inundated with sympathy calls, and the general “poor Heather” atmosphere. I did not want people to feel sorry for me; I was a fighter and needed everyone to fight with me. Eventually I phoned my boss and thanked him for all the calls and support, but asked him to please convey this message to the staff “ I had a mastectomy, not a lobotomy, the piece that is missing, I had never used to answer a phone, type on the computer or make coffee. I am still the same Heather, only with a piece missing”. This set the tone throughout the company for my recovery and the support I got was incredible. The sense of humour that we all had helped me deal with the cancer.
At that time I was the Quality Controller of the files and had to check and sign the files if all was in order. So after chemo had started and my hair started to fall out, the joke around the office was that I need not sign the files, if the file was full of hair, that meant that I had already checked it. The first day that I had to go to work bald, I was nervous as to how people would react as the reality of my cancer was now visible. I need not have worried. I survived the day with compliments as to my GI Jane look. The next day some of the men had shaved their heads and a lot of the ladies wore bandanas in support. It was wonderful.
I decided that I could not control the cancer inside my body, but I could control the way I dealt with it. I had been given a death sentence, 95% chance I would not live longer than 3 years. I remember the pain and agony of watching my father die when I was 10, and I was not going to subject my own young children to this. Rachel was 9, Liam was 5 and Cloé was 4. I had 3 choices, I could lie down and die, spend my days crying and feeling sorry for myself (but being bald and having a bright red nose from crying would really hamper my social life) or I could fight and do it with humour.
I needed to give my kids hope and try and enjoy life with the as much as possible as I really did not know how much longer I had with them. So to lighten the pain in the house and give my kids hope I used humour. The constant throwing up from chemo and the weight loss, we called my Bulimic stage. To hide the baldness, we went out and bought a few wigs and bandanas. Each day we would decide the long blonde wig, the curly brown one or the pretty black one, or one of the bandanas. People at work soon got used to my different styles and would look forward to who I was coming to work as. Radiation, although highly unpleasant, also became known as “mom’s going to be nuked” and towards the end when I was medium to well done, and had not had a proper bath for over a month, the kids called me their hobo.
When I was first diagnosed, I found it difficult to find other younger people who had gone through the same experience, who had young kids, but all I could find was older women, whose kids had already left home. So it was up to me to find a way to tell the kids and make it ok for them. I fell back on one of my strengths – humour. While this may not seem logical, it worked. A laugh releases happy hormones and makes you feel good. Just think how good you feel once you have had a good laugh!! It was not always easy, but each day I made a constant decision to make the day count and have at least 3 laughs that day. They say that to start a habit, you need to repeat that action at least 3 times a day for a while and then it becomes part of you, and that is what we did.
I had always grown up a self reliant individual, as I had been orphaned at the tender age of 10, so asking for help was very difficult. And that is where my wonderful friends stepped in. Karen, Dagmar, Nicky, Alex, Meryl, and Gael. All of them just took over when I could not. They did not even ask what I needed, they just did. My heaven sent angel, Karen and her kids actually camped out at the house for a few days when things were tough and she just ran things. A friend like that is one in a million. Between us we had 6 kids, so the noise and laughter that filled the house helped to lift my spirits. Meryl, my ever caring and wonderful sister, would help with the kids when I needed to rest and came with me to the chemo. My rather tough German friend, Dagmar threatened to kill me if I died as I was not allowed to leave her, and she also helped with hugs and a shoulder when I needed a release. Nicky, the one with the biggest hugs, was there for be in so many ways and her constant prayers helped enormously and just taking the kids out for treats and letting them get a break from home and to just be kids. Gael became my adopted mom (and still is) and she would let me just talk and cry and get cross and be human. She never judged me for the momentary lapse in my armour, but just held me and loved me. Alex, one of the funniest and positive people I have ever met, once travelled to the USA and bought me back a key chain with a sealed radiation rod on it so that every time I looked at it, I could remember what I had been though and how I had beaten it.
My message to you is to choose to fight, choose to make each day count (don’t sweat the small stuff – who cares if the dishes are not done right away, and the kids have to have snackwiches for supper). Kids will not remember that the house was not spotless on a certain day, or that their beds were not made every day, but they will remember that mom fought cancer and won!!! Laugh more and most importantly accept the help of others around you, even if you don’t feel like letting them in. They can make a huge difference and lift your spirits. There will be days when you are so down, sick and tired, and those are the days when you need to have “my time”, a relaxing bubble bath, reading a good book, having a hearty cry or even just sitting on the grass enjoying nature.
Love life and enjoy each day to the fullest. You never know what the future holds, but it’s worth looking forward to. Also be honest with the ones around you. If you are feeling sick, say so, if you are tired, rest, if you need time-out, take it, if you want to scream, scream, but most importantly it is ok to laugh and have fun. Remember this is your life and there is no right or wrong way to deal with the cancer, but it is also your time to be selfish and take care of number one. You can always go back to being superwoman once you are clear.
Wishing all who read this encouragement and hope and lots of laughs and “me time”. Remember the old advert on TV years ago: CANCER CAN BE BEATEN!
Heather Janse van Vuuren
May you help. My 16 years old daughter has two lamps on her breast. Her mother went with her to a clinic eight months ago and was told not to worry as a girl of 16 cannot develop breast cancer. It continues to worry us and we don’t know what to do.
It is very important that your daughter be properly examined. CANSA has mobile health units where she can be examined or you can visit your nearest CANSA Care Centre. To find out about CANSA’s screening services please phone the CANSA Care Centre closest to where you live – here are the telephone numbers: https://www.cansa.org.za/cansa-care-centres-contact-details/ If you are not sure which one to contact, please phone our Toll Free Call Centre on 0800 22 66 22 and the operators will help you.
You can also find out more about prevention of breast cancer and facts regarding breast examinations here: https://www.cansa.org.za/womens-health/