Almost all breast cancer survivors will tell you that receiving a life-altering diagnosisand hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ changes you in more ways than you can imagine. October being breast cancer awareness month, we asked two brave warriors to share their stories with us…
Turning pain into purpose
When you’re in the prime of your life, things seem to be everlasting. You feel almost invincible, like nothing will ever slow you down or stop you from achieving your dreams. But for 48-year-old recruitment agency business owner Shona Kelland this all changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March this year.
After learning she had rare and aggressive form of breast cancer (triple-negative), Shona had to act quickly. And, as if fighting for her life in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t enough, she also suffered the tragic loss of her mother. Instead of crumbling under the enormity of it all though, Shona has risen up and chosen to turn her pain into purpose in the hopes that it will change lives.
We meet Shona on a good day. She’s feeling relatively strong after her most recent dose of weekly chemotherapy. She makes coffee and we sit in her sun lounge overlooking the picturesque valley below her Augusta Ridge Eco Estate apartment. This has been her home, her work station and her recovery centre for the last six months.
Shona shows us photos from a recent shoot she did with her neighbour, a professional photographer. The powerful images without her hair and revealing her scar capture the very raw, life-changing journey she’s been on. She hopes they can be used to create awareness about the reality of breast cancer and the fact that nobody is an exception.
“There is no history of cancer in my family. I think when this is the case we tend to shrug off any possibility – but I am living proof that it can affect anybody.”
Shona was diagnosed after a routine mammogram on 4 March, the day after South Africa’s first COVID-19 case was announced. Her life changed drastically, and the things and people she’d come to rely on, the energy she thrived on and the adventures she looked forward to began to fade away.
“They found a lump which I didn’t even know was there. They did an ultrasound and then a biopsy, which came back positive. I was shocked and asked myself what on earth I did to deserve this. Then, it was simply, what next?”
Shona was diagnosed with Stage 1 triple-negative breast cancer which is considered a very aggressive cancer. “They did a lumpectomy to remove the lump from my breast, a BRCA gene test for breast and ovarian cancer risk (which came back negative) and a lymph node biopsy. Fortunately there was no sign of cancer in my lymph nodes.”
Shona’s oncologist recommended four sessions of aggressive chemotherapy followed by 12 weeks of less aggressive chemo, and then radiation.
“I had a port fitted and left the hospital. As the country went into lockdown, I started chemo at Hopelands Cancer Centre at Hillcrest Hospital. This became my second home and the wonderful staff and patients became a regular part of my life from day one.”
As she describes the side effects of those first four sessions (three weeks apart), Shona’s body language changes. There’s tension in her body, her fists and her face as she recalls the agony she so desperately wants to forget. “Having the actual chemo was the easiest part. What it did to me afterwards took me to some very dark places.
“Before cancer I was fit and healthy. I always lived life at 200km an hour. I had a partner and plans to move to another province and open up another branch of my business there. Then it all came crashing down. I was exhausted, constantly nauseas, always in pain and my energy and sense of humour had gone. I lost my self-esteem, my self-worth and my purpose. I felt useless and lonely and the lockdown restrictions made being sick harder.”
There silence in the room as Shona, who has managed up until this point to put on a brave face, starts to cry. She shares the heartache of losing her mother to Multiple Sclerosis related complications during the day before her third round of chemotherapy.
“Losing my partner, my mother and my dreams and not being able to jump on a plane and be there for my dad completely broke me. But then, someone said to me ‘this will test your mettle’. Cancer, Covid-19, chemo, loss … how much was I expected to take? But you do take it and you do find it in you to pick yourself up and fight.”
Shona says the support system through Hopelands and special group of friends, her sisterhood, who walked as much of the journey with her as they could (given the lockdown) made a huge difference.
“Having a part of my breast removed was a big deal, but I am thankful that I did not have to have my breasts removed. Losing my hair was a pretty big thing. I was sitting in my car talking to a friend on the phone and running my hands through my hair when it hit home. A very good friend of mine came over. We sat on my patio and he shaved my hair and then his.”
Cancer is a personal journey, she says. “I spent a lot of my journey angry, but then I realised it wasn’t helping me so I began to take accountability for each issue I struggled with. I realised I was learning about life and myself along the way. I began to cook and I learnt to knit.”
Square after square, Shona knitted and sewed together what is now an unevenly unique patchwork blanket that represents everything she has experienced in the last few months – emotion, fatigue, anger, patience, tolerance, determination and survival. She adds to it regularly.
“People often asked me what they could do for me when I was at my weakest and my response was and will always be … go for your mammogram! Regardless of your age, check your breasts. If you’re not sure, ask a doctor. Mammograms are nowhere near as bad as what people think. Technology has changed so much. It’s 30 seconds of discomfort that could change or save your life. In my case, it did.”
When all of this is behind her Shona says she plans to fly to the UK and go and celebrate her Mother’s life and her survival.
“I will never take my energy for granted again, nor my health, but I now believe I can conquer anything. I am not defined by cancer. I am defined by who I am and the scars are my battle wounds – a symbol of survival and a reminder to be responsible and grateful for life.”
Photos by: David Weeks
Living life despite the ‘what if’ …
For Tamsyn, once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient. While this might sound like the words of somebody who has succumbed to an unknown fate, for her it is a reminder that life is short and that we should all make the best of our time, because there is always that ‘what if’.
It was after seeing her aunt pass away from cancer despite having chemo that Tamsyn questioned whether the side effects were worth it. “I remember watching movies about people with cancer and I told myself if I ever got it, I wouldn’t have chemotherapy because I’d rather live my life for as long as God let me in the best way possible.”
But, a few years later, when she was sat in front of an oncologist who gave her the earth-shattering diagnosis, the then 38-year-old wife (to Gary) and mother of two young boys (Zachariah and Noah) realised her aunt’s decision to do the chemo meant more time with her family, time to prepare and time to say goodbye.
And so, despite numerous setbacks Tamsyn has had since her -April 2019 diagnosis, she believes she has seen the hand of God working in many ways to ensure she can tell her story…a story which she says is not yet over.
“I have been a marine GIS Analyst (ecologist) for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for more than 15 years. My job involves mapping the ocean, conservation planning and marine protected area expansion.”
Her diagnosis, over one year ago, was completely unexpected and took Tamsyn on a pathway she says she never thought would become a part of her life.
“I woke up with a large, hot, hard and sore lump on my breast which I had not felt before. My doctor was concerned and an ultrasound also left the radiographers baffled. It was put down to being a cyst and an antibiotic was prescribed. A benign needle biopsy and more antibiotics a few weeks later resulted in no change. The pain got worse and a surgeon suggested a second, bigger biopsy. This time they noted my lymph glands were swollen, but still they said it was the infection.”
Surgery confirmed a benign cyst with a hard casing which, due to its rapid growth had become infected in the centre. The infection was cleared and it was believed the cyst would dissipate and be absorbed back into Tamsyn’s body over time.
“Unfortunately, weeks later this seemed not to be the case. As the pain continued, I sought homeopathic treatment and was advised that I had high oestrogen levels, so I stopped birth control and found ways to assimilate the oestrogen. I tried CBD oil, THC and oxygen therapy but the pain persisted and it felt as if the lump (now named Lolly) was growing. Three months later, while searching the internet and praying for answers, I found the Durban Breast Clinic and booked an appointment for a second surgical opinion. Dr Reddy was amazing but extremely concerned about Lolly (who was now about the size of a tennis ball) and my swollen lymph gland.”
Dr Reddy advised the removal of the lump and told Tamsyn to prepare for the possibility of losing her breast. Surgery was scheduled for two weeks later, but a delay on the day due to medical aid issues resulted in a further examination and concern that Lolly had grown another 2cm in size. A more representative biopsy was performed and follow up surgery scheduled for a week later was headed towards a mastectomy.
“Then I received a phone call that changed my life. Stage 3, triple negative breast cancer that had spread to the lymphs. It’s very aggressive and required me to see an oncologist immediately. I call this day ‘the day time stood still’ because on hearing the news, everything that was truly important to me in life suddenly seemed so crystal clear – followed by the inevitable overwhelming feeling where everything around me came crashing down.”
And so began her cancer journey – oncologists, treatments, the possibility of further spread, the reality of losing her hair.
“It was so difficult to fathom that the oncologist was talking about me, and about my body.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Tamsyn’s desire to fight and survive began to surface.
“Ten days later I had a port inserted and two days later I started chemotherapy. After my first dose of what I call ‘the red angel’ I felt the full effect of my immune system crashing and I landed up in hospital. This part of the journey took endurance and was full of ups and downs, numerous delays, the pain of losing my hair and the very real understanding that you are fighting a serious battle.”
The second part of Tamsyn’s journey however, involved losing a part of her body, and came with a host of emotions and pain. “I felt as though so much of what made me a woman was slowly being stripped away. I learnt to mourn and feel the loss and I was reminded that beauty is not external but comes from deep inside. I learnt to see myself the way God saw me, the way those who truly knew me saw me. ”
With so much residual cancer left after her mastectomy, Tamsyn’s radiation was delayed and she was put on oral chemo. Comparing her journey to climbing a mountain, Tamsyn says that while it might seem impossible, one step at a time means progress.
“It’s during these delays we are reminded that sometimes when we reach what we thought was the top of the mountain, it was in fact just the small peak in front, hiding a bigger one behind it. You have to learn to keep reminding yourself that, as with so much of life, this too shall pass. You may stumble and fall, you may even come around what you thought was the end of the path to find there is a whole other section that still needs to be climbed, but with support and determination, you keep climbing with the hope that one day you will reach the top!”
You can read more on Tamsyn’s blog at https://hopewhenithurts.co.za
Photo credit for family pics: Robyn Harris