With friends and family offering endless support, Mbombelan Nelia Venter has triumphed in the face of hardship. Living life to the full, there is no stopping this young-at-heart granny of six.
Nelia’s struggle with cancer began in 2008 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The tumour was removed and she underwent radiation therapy, only to be diagnosed with mesothelioma two years later. Although they removed her lung lining, this kind of cancer can’t be treated. “The doctor gave me two years, but God has given me seven – and counting!” she smiles. “I’ve been able to watch my grandchildren grow and spend time with them riding bikes and having plenty of fun.”
But shortly after the mesothelioma diagnosis, it was discovered that Nelia had a tumour on the T5 vertebrae of her spine. Before they could even get the results from the biopsy to determine what kind of cancer it was, the whole vertebrae collapsed, as it had been eaten away by the disease. Mercifully the bone marrow was not affected, or Nelia would have been paralysed. The T5 vertebrae was then replaced with a titanium version.
“After that operation the cancer just started spreading all over my body and, despite a few very good years after the first diagnosis, the last while has been difficult. Before that everything was manageable and I could carry on normally with my life, even though I was never in remission,” Nelia explains.
But illness has not stopped her and she continues to work and enjoy life to the fullest. “I enjoy working with people and keeping my brain busy. Being at home all day can be extremely unstimulating and eventually you don’t even have anything to offer in a conversation. So I have continued to work, although I will be retiring at the end of this year due to my health.”
Sitting still is not on the cards, as Nelia points out that while she does not have any hobbies, she has six grandchildren. “They keep me busy! There are five boys and one girl, so I have been richly blessed. It is the most wonderful privilege and blessing to be a grandmother. I try to be a young gran, doing as much as I can with them and enjoy every moment with my grandkids.”
Nelia’s lust for life has seen her take on many adventures with her husband, Charles. As members of the Mavericks Motorcyle Club, breakfast runs on a Sunday morning after church are the norm and an annual trek of over 1 000km. “The last trip was from Mbombela to Van Reenen, then up to Kimberly, and back. But I have started driving the backup motor vehicle, because it’s far more comfortable than being on the back of a bike!”
A more recent trip, sailing in Croatia last September, saw Nelia and her husband board a boat where the age group ranged between 19 and 33. “And there we came along, in our mid-60s and joined the group of partygoers. The captain looked really surprised when we arrived, but we had so much fun!”
Nelia’s circle of friends has been instrumental in keeping her spirits up. She motions to the hat she is wearing, adorned with different types of brooches. “This is the first time my hair has fallen out from the cancer. So a group of my friends got together to buy the hat and each brought a brooch with a specific meaning that they pinned onto it. So it’s a very special, encouraging hat to wear.
“I have a friend who has taken me to my chemotherapy treatments every single session since 2008. It’s not as if you need someone to drive you, but she does it out of support and sits with me for the whole five hours. Sometimes it can be a bit grim sitting there receiving treatment, so we sit and talk and laugh and eventually everyone in the room laughs along.
“And if it’s not friends who are showering you with love, then it’s family. Through all the prayer groups and all the people who have carried me emotionally, I have been very blessed. God has been with me all the way.”
In 2019 Nelia and Charles celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary. She notes that to achieve so many years together takes compromise and a willingness to change for the better. “At some point you also realise how many things are just not worth fighting over. I’ve always been a very independent person and I’m used to doing my own thing. But the illness has also brought changes in our marriage and I lean a lot more on my husband for help now. He, in turn, has started faffing more around me, which is actually quite nice,” she laughs.
Although Nelia retains her vibrance, she admits that she can feel she is getting weaker by the week. “We all need to walk this road sooner or later. I have at least been given an extra seven years. One of my grandsons was only a week old when I was first diagnosed with cancer. Now, I have had seven years with him. It’s not easy, but you need to think positively and not focus on being ill, or you end up feeling worse than you actually are.”
Reflecting on life’s lessons, Nelia says above all, she believes that giving love is of utmost importance. “Love can fix so many things that are wrong in this world – even more so than money. Positivity is also crucial and has been what has kept me going. When things are going well it is easy to stay positive, but when it’s going bad it can be hard. But that is when you need friends who can pick you up and offer words of encouragement.
“Walk a path with God – He is responsible for everything and has carried me through so much. When there was no hope and nothing left, He carried me. So I live surrounded by His love and that of friends and family, relishing every day that is being granted.”
Text: LINDI BOTHA