How cancer has touched my life: Lize de Jonge
I dedicate this story to my younger sister, Yolandi de Jonge. I know more about breast cancer than any 31 year old woman should know. I’ve survived my own ordeal and sadly lost a younger sister to this disease.
My story is one that displays love, devotion and courage. It’s a story of two sisters who loved each other tremendously and walked the lesser trodden path hand in hand.
At the age of 24, I was diagnosed with Paget’s disease which is cancer of the nipple. Being very young, my case went undiagnosed for more than a year. Traditionally, Paget’s disease only shows up in women after menopause and in my case, being diagnosed in my 20’s, was an extremely rare case. My condition became progressively worse, with my doctor prescribing a different topical cream each time to treat my ‘eczema’. One of the main concerns with Paget’s disease is that it mimics eczema, presenting itself as a dry patch of skin appearing around the areola. If left untreated, this dry patch will etch away at your breast until eventually it spreads to your glands.
It was through reading an article in a magazine that I became conscious of the very real possibility that I might have breast cancer. From that point onwards, I started seeing specialists and went into the proverbial ‘survival mode’. Normally you need a referral from your doctor to see a specialist, but sometimes a little determination and tenacity can also open doors. I insisted on being examined and my suspicions were confirmed. Because of my age and not the severity of the cancer, my excellent team of doctors decided on an aggressive approach - complete left breast mastectomy followed by immediate reconstructive surgery and a full course of chemo therapy (six treatments at three week intervals). At this pivotal point, after the initial diagnosis, I sent up a prayer to the powers that be, to bless the hands that are about to work on me and also the drugs that are about to fight my body like no other fight I’ve ever had to attempt. A good doctor will encourage you to seek a second opinion, but at some point you need to stop, trust and put your faith into your medical team.
It was then that I went into remission.
For my younger sister’s 21st birthday, the three of us, my sister (Yolandi), a close family friend and myself decided to celebrate this significant occasion in Egypt, snorkelling, sightseeing and visiting the breathtaking Pyramids! The previous year, my sister had been saving money whilst working in England, to pay for breast enlargements when coming back to South Africa. In due course, this is exactly what happened, showing my sister’s strong character and the ability to take the bull by the horns and make things happen! While enjoying our trip, she called me aside to feel a lump on her left breast. I casually decided it must be a fibro adenoma, as statistically 9 out of 10 lumps are benign.
To my astonishment, my sister was diagnosed with stage 3 metastatic breast cancer at the age of 21 years. Just to clarify, it was definitely not the breast enlargements or the silicone implants that caused the cancer. Taking into account our family history, her surgeon should have insisted on a sonar or mammogram before surgery, to ensure there were no irregularities in the breast tissue.
Metastatic disease means that the cancer will spread to other areas of the body, it’s only a matter of time. With this serious prognosis, we had to support my sister in every way, taking into account that she was a 21 year old woman with a zest for life and bigger dreams than most! She had a dream of becoming a pilot, so once again, she found a way to embark on her vision and enrolled for her private pilot’s licence (PPL). She advanced superbly, all the while in ‘remission’ – we were all praying for a miracle! The day after her first solo flight, I had the awful responsibility of breaking the sad news to her that her cancer had returned and this time in the other breast.
The initial shock of the news was harsh, but surprisingly not as harsh as the news that came next. My sister was no longer able to pursue her dream of flying, as pilots need a clean bill of health due to the responsibility they carry for other people’s lives. I witnessed her heartbreaking disappointment, which made her extremely vulnerable and angry… initially at me. As I was the person closest to her at the time, I understood that her anger had to be directed at someone, and that someone had to be me. My sister, who had to deal with such devastating news, became angry at God and everyone else around her.
Having to support someone who is going through cancer, while simultaneously experiencing it for yourself first hand are two equally stressful situations, for very different reasons. Over a four year period, Yolandi relapsed five times, which meant she had to undergo five different types of chemo therapy as the cancerous growths spread to five different areas of her body. I could never successfully convey to anyone what emotional turmoil my family went through during those four years. They were tough and beautiful, rough and delicate, painful and triumphant all at once. Even under such strenuous circumstances, my sister achieved remarkable success. She started a highly successful labour broking company that at times employed 100 men, working for her in the building industry – whilst showing up for treatments and undergoing numerous hospitalisations. In these types of situations, you always have a choice. You can either choose to stop living or start LIVING. She obviously chose the latter.
A year ago at the age of 30, I also found a lump on my right breast. It was a rare, fast growing type that required immediate surgery, although it was benign. The type of surgery is commonly known as a back-flap, where the muscles from your back are removed, brought forward under the skin under your arm, to form your new breast tissue. Though stretching the affected arm will require lifelong exercise, science can achieve amazing results these days! Explore your surgery options, as there are many.
On Mother’s Day, 10 May 2009, my sister’s body was no longer able to cope. At 25 years of age, the cancer had spread to her liver and her tiny body was taking strain. Two months earlier she wanted to know what it would feel like to walk down the aisle in a white dress, so we arranged a beautiful wedding for her and her partner. They went to Bali for their honeymoon as she wanted to go on one last trip. She generated so much energy and really made things happen around her.
Our journeys are very different. Her journey was very different from mine and each is unique in its own right. Being involved and playing an active role in the field of breast cancer is a meaningful and inspiring vocation for me. Waking up each morning and knowing that I can touch multiple lives through the work I’m doing, makes me a passionate person. The free mammograms Cause Marketing Fundraisers (CMF) is able to provide with the help of our sponsors to women in the public sector, makes me an individual with a purpose and drive. What I have truly come to understand, is that this life is all we have and we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We have to live life abundantly! Some days raw passion drives my dedication and other days dedication overtakes and drives my passion, whichever way, it all becomes worthwhile when a patient turns to you and says, “Thank you so much for the amazing work you are doing, God bless!”
Ref no: 03/PAdj/01/2010/WS