Renel Le Roux and Zanele Mkhwanazi Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) survivors Share their Journey
Two Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) survivors share their journey as we mark International Metastatic Breast Cancer Day.
Renel Le Roux
In August 2010 my whole life changed in a few minutes. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28. My children were only three and four years old. My life came tumbling down. I had so many questions and so little answers. Google wasn’t on every phone at that time. I didn’t know who to turn to or what to ask.
“Survival mode” kicked in for me. I went for a biopsy and when the surgeon called and said I must go and see him immediately and bring my husband along, I knew it was serious. He explained to us that I had invasive ductal carcinoma and that the cancer was oestrogen positive. My left breast was full of cancer and at that young age the chances of it spreading to my right breast was very good.
Just to give a little bit of background of the weeks prior to my diagnosis.
I felt a lump in my left breast. I went to see my GP, but she was out of town and I had to see her colleague. Let’s call her Dr X. Well Dr X told me I was paranoid. She said I was too young, I was too emotional. She thought my hormones were not balanced at that time. She suggested that I take an anti-inflamatory medication. I asked her if she could refer me for an ultrasound and mammogram. She laughed and said that wouldn’t be necessary since I’m very young and this is definitely not cancer.
I told her I am the patient and that I would really like to go for these tests. Again she said it was not necessary, that I was over emotional and irrational. My sixth sense told me that something was not right and I demanded a letter. Begrudingly she passed me the letter and told me to wait three months before I go, as she was sure the lump would be gone by then. Needless to say I went for a ultrasound and mammogram the next day, and as they say: the rest is history!
The surgeon spoke to the oncologist and the plastic surgeon. They suggested what they thought the best way forward would be for me. We decided on a double mastectomy with latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction, as I would not need radiation.
After that I would take oestrogen suppressant medication for 5 years. I was on a monty Lucrin injection and drank Kessar every day. They warned me that this was a painful operation and that I wouldn’t be able to use my arms for at least 6 weeks. They cut big pieces of skin from my back to form the new skin for the breasts. Then they took my back muscles (my doctor called it the “biltong muscles”) to keep the prostheses in place.
It was emotionally a really difficult time for me, but I had to be strong for all of my loved ones. My husband cried a lot at the start of this journey, as he lost his mother at ten years old, due to stomach cancer. I could see the sadness and hurt in my parents eyes every time they saw me. My grandmother couldn’t stop crying. I had to look after my two small children…
I didn’t have time to grieve for myself, for all of the sudden changes in my life, for all the things I would have to put my body through. I needed to be strong for everyone around me. I needed to answer thousands of questions without showing the fear I was feeling. I spent as much time as possible with my children. I tried to explain to them at their level what was happening and to prepare them on the week that would follow the operation, with all the drains and changes that were to come.
The big day of the operation arrived and I felt the need to tell my husband what I would like him to do if I didn’t survive the operation. I told him what he needed to tell our children, what kind of “new mom” he must pick for them and how I would like them to remember me. I needed them to know how much I loved them and that they were my whole life. It was an emotional conversation, but I needed to do it before I went to theatre.
I woke up 7 hours later with extreme pain and a pressure on my chest that I could not explain. My recovery was a long process, very hard and emotional.
Luckily I had the best support system from my husband, my parents and my sister. The oestrogen suppressant treatment was working and my bloodwork looked better every month. My oncologist was satisfied with how I responded to the treatment. The treatment did have its side effects like severe joint pain, weight gain, thinning hair and extreme tiredness. But all of that was a small price to pay…
After five years my cancer was in remission, and I lived life to the fullest. I was grateful for every dance concert I could attend, every netball game, every cricket and tennis game. I cried at prizegiving, I felt so privileged to be able to be there. I saw my children grow up and thanked God every day for it.
Fast forward 7 years later – 12 years since my first diagnosis…
It was August 2022, I started having trouble breathing and felt that something was wrong. I had bronchitis, then asthmatic bronchitis and then pneumonia. The little voice in the back of my head started screaming that something was wrong, but I ignored it.
I went for my yearly checkup in November. After the chest xray and ultrasound I knew something was wrong. The radiologist told me that there was fluid in my lungs and that I should see my oncologist asap. I went to my oncologist the next day and she sent me for an emergency CT scan.
That afternoon our GP called us and asked us to come and see him. That was very strange and I instantly knew what he was going to say. When we walked into his room, he greeted us and said that he is seeing us as a friend and not as our doctor. He was really emotional. He explained to us that things didn’t look good and he was shocked to see my results. He said it was the last thing he expected.
He explained to us that I had a pleural effusion and that my lungs were full of cancer. In all the little airways and tubes, and that it didn’t look good. Once again we were shocked into silence. My husband cried, and once again I kicked into survival mode.
I realised it’s going to be much harder to tell my teenage children that the cancer was back.
The doctor told me that I must go to theatre as soon as possible to get the fluid drained to relieve the pressure on my lungs, as well as to get a lung biopsy. They also needed to do a procedure called pleurodesis. They inject talc into the pleura area under the lung. The talc irritates the lungs and it forms “scar tissue” and that helps to keep the fluid out.
My sister was turning 40 in two weeks time and we had a family getaway weekend planned. My oncologist and cardio thorax surgeon said we could wait until after that weekend to do the operation. Only my father and husband knew it was cancer, as I didn’t want to jump the gun and spoil the weekend for everyone. I drank in every second of that weekend and spent as much quality time with my family as possible.
The Monday morning on 20 December 2022, I went into theatre. The cardio thorax surgeon explained to us that it was a very risky operation. They must make an incision and put quite a thick drain into the pleura and lung to drain the fluid. Then I would have to stay in hospital for 5 nights with the drain in.
I was on strong meds and morfine for the time I was in hospital. The days went by blurrily, but I remember clearly when the surgeon came to talk to us after the operation. He told us we must spend as much time together as possible as a family, as I only have 3-6 months to live. My husband cried and was overwhelmed with emotion, me as always, boom, went into survival mode. I asked him to bring the kids so I could talk to them. I asked him to call my dad and ask my dad to speak to my mother and sister.
That experience was the worst ever. Telling my kids that the cancer had returned and spread, without giving them too much info. Everything happened in slow motion. My 16 year old daughter screamed and ran out of the hospital and my husband had to chase after her. My 17 year old son went pale and just sat there with shock in his eyes. My heart broke into a thousand pieces.
On the 24th of December I begged my oncologist to discharge me. That afternoon at five o clock she discharged me with very strict instructions and conditions. Just in time for Christmas.
I was very weak and in a lot of pain, but I was so thankful to be at home with my family. Again it was a long and painful recovery. Being older this time, also didn’t make it easier.
The oncologist diagnosed me with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer to the lungs and pleura. Once again is oestrogen positive and I got a Zoladex injection every month and I drink Laradex daily. This would be my treatment for the rest of my life, or until the cancer returned.
I hate the Zoladex injections (even though it keeps my cancer suppressed), it is very painful and the needle is as thick as a cattle needle end usually leaves a blue mark on my stomach. The side effects of the treatment sometimes get the best of me. I suffer from extreme joint pain in my hands, feet, hips and sacrum. My hair is thinning and I am gaining a lot of weight, I’m tired all the time and I get hot flushes.
At the age of 42 I had to go on medical dissability, because I couldn’t work anymore.
This is a life changing event and everything happened in such a small space of time.
You look at life differently, you learn to appreciate all the small things in life. My life slowed down, I have such a close and great relationship with my husband and children.
I am still alive after 10 months. I know I am living on borrowed time…
I’m on my knees and I thank God every day for giving me this time with family and friends. I am very grateful for my support system. I’m listening to my body, when I’m tired, I rest and when I’m sad I cry.
When I look into the mirror, I don’t see the old me, I see a woman with battle scars, I see a fatter version of myself, but I am alive and my body works. I see someone that never gave up, I see a mum, a wife, a daughter. I see the lines on my face, I see me, but a stronger and wiser me. I see a fighter, I see a survivor.
I’m still scared and freaked out every month when I go for my tests. But I made peace with the fact that this is my life now.
My advice to everybody is to trust your gut, don’t give up, stay on your knees. Keep on praying and thanking the Lord and live life to the fullest. Miracles happen every day…
I would like to thank CANSA for all their support during my cancer journey. Their WhatsApp support group means so much to me. I also subscribed to the support e-mails on iSurvivor MBC after my stage 4 diagnosis. Aunt Sophia’s emails helped me every step of the way. All her advice and guidance was amazing!
My name is Zanele Mkhwanazi residing in Vryheid KZN. Im going to tell my story about the journey I’ve been journeying with cancer up thus far.
My journey started in 2001 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the worst day and year of my life. That was the 1st time I heard that word CANCER being said in my life and my family.
When the doctor told me that I had breast cancer I was so devastated, but I had to follow all the doctor’s instructions. My left breast was to be removed, because the lump was big. Through tears I had to accept this and put my fears aside and face the reality.
The breast was removed and after a month I had to start chemo which was another word I heard for the first time in my life. When I told people that I was going for chemo treatment they started telling me lots of things like I was going to be bedridden and have nappies,etc. Lots of people had became ‘doctors’ who knew everything about cancer, but I had to take it one step at a time.
I had to listen to my oncologist rather than people’s opinions.
I had to do 6 cycles of chemo. Though I was having nausea and vomiting, I persevered until the end of treatment and on the last cycle of chemo treatment my oncologist told me that it was not necessary to do radiation, as everything seemed good and there was no sign of cancer. I was so glad to hear this, as thinking about chemo I thought that radiation is would be worse. I had to start oral chemo treatment, which the oncologist said I was going to take for 5 years.
Then in 2006 I felt lumps on the same breast where the operation had been done. I called my surgeon and made an appointment to see him. He told me that we have to remove the lumps and that he was going to send them for tests. After surgery and tests it was found that the lumps were cancerous.
My surgeon referred me to a different oncologist. The oncologist asked me about the treatment I had during my first diagnosis. I told him that I had chemo, but didn’t have radiation. He told me that I was supposed to have radiation, as it is the treatment that burns and kills cancer cells. I had to start chemo and radiation hand in hand.
As my breast was removed, I went for reconstruction in 2010 and all went well.
In 2013 towards the end of the year I started having pains in my stomach. I thought it was stomach ache, but it became more severe day to day.
On the 30th of December my husband took me to the hospital and I was admitted. The radiologist who did scans and xrays asked me when the pain started. I told him it was some weeks back. He then sent me back to the ward and the surgeon came and told me they were going to take me to theatre.
The following day I went to the theatre and they put a camera through my belly button. After that the pain was gone and the surgeon came and told that was his first time to see what he saw while I was in theatre. He told me my womb was overturned and he didn’t know the reason, but they had put it back in place. He told me that was why I was having so much pain.
He also told me that they took some biopsies for tests. When the results came it showed that the cancer has mestasised to my ovaries. Then he send me back to my oncologist and I started chemo and radiation. After finishing treatment I thought it was over, not knowing that the journey is was not over.
In 2015 I started having pains in the breast that had been reconstructed and I told my oncologist that I wanted it to be removed, but he said all those who have construction complain about having pain.
I insisted that it be removed and he called the surgeon and made an appointment. I went and had it removed. The following day the surgeon came and told me that the prosthesis that was fitted in my breast was bigger than my chest and was leaking which was the reason for my pain. He also told me that there were white spots underneath the prosthesis which they removed and sent for testing. I was discharged and the following week I was asked by the PA of my oncologist to come and see him. I went there and was told the spots were cancerous and I had to go for treatment (chemo then radiation) again.
In 2018 I had abdominal pains and was rushed to hospital. Scans were done and I can say God did do the work, because when they were doing scans they found out that I had lump on my lung. After treating the abdominal pain I had to do another scans for my lungs.
The surgeon came and told that I will have to go for an operation of the lung, because they wanted to find out what the lump was. He said it could be pneumonia, TB or cancer. He told me that during operation they would put a camera inside and remove the lump and send it for tests . I went for this major operation and afterwards was taken to ICU. I was even seen by a physiotherapist to help me with breathing and walking, because I was in ICU for weeks. After recovering in ICU I went to a ward and my oncologist came to see me and told me that the cancer has mestasised to my lung. I was discharged and then started 6 cycles of radiation followed by chemo.
Last year in 2022 I had to start Badrovect which will be for a life time. I’m also taking Faslodex injections with it and amo on Stradexa tablets.
This is my journey. I thank God for having family that supported me all the way, my husband, my daughters, mom and dad, brother, relatives and church.
During this journey I have joined CANSA Facebook support group for cancer patients and loved ones and the CANSA MBC WhatsApp group and these groups are so supportive in every way, because we are on the same journey and we know each and every fallout we are all facing day to day. Members even call when you don’t feel ok and want to know more about how you are coping with what you are facing. When I have to start new treatment they are there to hold my hand and tell me about its side effects, and what they have found useful in dealing with them. This I so appreciate.