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Finding the warrior within

Marlene Pretorius is one of those people who makes you stop and look twice. Her striking blue eyes grab your attention and hold it there, making you want to know a little more.

As soon as you have spent a little time with her, the thing that strikes you the most about Marlene is just how incredibly alive she is. Vitality and life ooze out of every pore, her energy is contagious and her laugh draws you in. If you didn’t know better, you’d think her the very picture of health. You’d never think that in the past year and a half she had endured six operations and would be going through the seventh this month.

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Marlene’s journey started in her mid-30s, when she started experiencing a strange pain in her left breast after having a breast reduction and lift. “Coming from a family with an extremely strong history of cancer on both sides, I always wondered if I would end up with the dreaded disease of breast cancer. At the time, I thought that this pain couldn’t possibly be cancer; everyone had always told me that it doesn’t hurt.

And so the search to find the source of the pain began. I saw doctor after doctor, one even removing a benign lymph node,” says Marlene. “Each time, I was placed onto a different painkiller, and yet the pain continued. I even tried about a million different bra types to see what I could wear without wanting to tear it off my body. I knew something was up, and not something good.”

Because Marlene’s mother had suffered from breast cancer, she had been going for a yearly mammogram and ultrasound without fail for 11 years since the age of 29. Every year she was told that all was okay. All was okay … until the year it wasn’t. “During my yearly check-up at age 40, the radiologist found a benign mass in my right breast that had grown from 5,5mm to 2cm in diameter. In my experience, anything changing shape, size or colour had to go. Everything inside of me screamed, ‘Get it out now!’“

Even though all of the reports and biopsy results indicated that the mass was benign, a breast specialist with whom Marlene had met (said to be one of the best in the business), told her that a breast MRI was a must. “So off I went for one,” she says. “It was done on a strange-looking machine. Patients must lie face down with their breasts squeezed gently into two spaces.

A drip was placed into my hand for 40 minutes as the machine scanned my body. The MRI results indicated the need for a targeted ultrasound on my left breast that I had felt the pain in for the past five years. On the ultrasound screen, it looked a bit strange. I fought to stay in denial, hoping that my gut was wrong. But there it was on the screen, begging me to ask the question, ‘How could we have missed this all along?’”

The ultrasound was eventually followed by a five-specimen biopsy. When the final results came, the diagnosis struck Marlene like a knock in a boxing ring. “It dropped me to my knees,” she recalls. “All those people who said cancer doesn’t hurt were wrong, in more ways than one. Not only was the cancer diagnosis wildly painful, but the tumour had been aching for years, warning me it was coming. I could have sat in the corner of that boxing ring and cried, but instead I grabbed that fierce bull by the horns and decided to fight.”

As Marlene prepared for her bilateral mastectomy, she watched the women who entered and left the radiology clinic. “It reminded me of being at a busy hairdresser,” she says sadly. “Even though the phenomenal hospital team treated them with the utmost respect and urgency, the women looked worried, sad and unsure. I knew we were all strong, but the prodding and probing of our bodies was too much,” she continues.

“The process felt like a complete invasion of the body, mind and soul. As needles entered our bodies, we fought back tears and did our best to breathe in and out, always offering a smile to our families as we walked out. Something in all of us did our best to reassure our loved ones that somehow we were going to win the fight. I knew that I was a strong, confident woman, as so many of us are, but I also knew that I could never make it through the battle on my own. I leaned heavily on my family and friends throughout my journey, and on God, my greatest pillar of strength.”

Marlene’s husband, Johan, and daughter, Nakita (14), have been by her side every step of the way. “There are times when you have to rely heavily on other people,” she says. “You can’t do normal things by yourself anymore, like showering or getting dressed. Basic things we take for granted become challenging, but they have been wonderful, and I am so blessed. You never know to what extent your loved ones will go for you until something like this happens. Nakita was at the tender age of 12 when this started; what an incredibly brave little girl she is!”

Marlene knows that as a strong woman, it’s humbling to need help. Getting knocked down again and again can sometimes make you feel that you are fighting the battle alone. “There may be women out there who are feeling this way,” she says. “It may feel like your entire world is coming to an end and that you do not know where to turn to. After all, cancer really can hurt. It can hurt us in a lot of ways, it can devastate our families, pile on the medical bills and disrupt our work and personal life. If you’ve taken too many blows and feel like you cannot go on for another day, that is when it is most important to just stop, breathe and remember that you are a force to be reckoned with. And with God, you’re unstoppable.”

Marlene reminds women to go for their yearly mammograms and ultrasounds, to do the check-ups and always to listen to what their bodies tell them. “After six operations and nearly two years,” she says, “I can finally say the end is almost in sight. I feel better every day, and thank God every day that I caught it in time.

It’s been tough, so, so tough. Good days, bad days, days of laughing, crying, screaming … But you know what? I made it, I am alive! It isn’t always easy, looking in the mirror and making peace with it, but I know I need to heal to get my life back, and I need to do it with confidence. Own your body, own the decisions you make. Only then can you move on and discover who you truly are deep inside; a brave woman full of courage. A warrior princess!”

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