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Nqobile’s story: “I am not a survivor. I am a conqueror.”

On 10 October 2010, Nqobile’s breast cancer was ‘officially’ found. Since she turned 40, her check-up routine had been the same. She would go for her regular breast examination annually. But it came as a surprise when her ex discovered a lump in her breast, as her annual check-up was just over in May and she was given a clean slate of health. Two days after the discovery, she quickly made an appointment with her old doctor to find out what the lump was. She also brought her imaging result that was taken in May to the doctor. With the words from her doctor, “I can see something here. In May, there was something already.” Feeling confused and shocked, she told Nqobile that her previous doctor overlooked the irregularity in the scan. Without further delay she had to do a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy on the very same day.

While waiting for her result, she was trying to rationalise and prepare herself for the worst. But when she received a call from her doctor asking her to come and pick up her result, she knew things were not good. She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and it was malignant. It was shock, disbelief, anxiety and distress when she heard the news, but she swallowed the cocktail of emotions anyway with denial and uncertainty, wishing she’s not going to die. She put on her straight face and was ready for the next step which was the treatment plan.

When there’s a will, there’s a way – diagnosis and surgery

All decisions happened within a week after her diagnosis. Since the lump was a little less than a centimetre, Nqobile’s treatment started with surgery before chemotherapy. It was suggested that she do a radical mastectomy, which requires removal of her entire right breast and axillary lymph nodes, as she no longer needed to breast feed. It was a difficult decision because for her, breasts symbolise beauty, motherhood and vitality. But to ensure zero reoccurrence, she had to put all her confidence on her doctor.

After the surgery, it was hard on her physically and mentally to process the uncertainty and the changes to her body. It took her six days to finally get the courage to wash herself and stand in front of the mirror, feeling the changes and accepting the new Nqobile. “This is me now, but it’s okay. The cancer is gone.” She kept herself going through her journey and never let cancer slow her down. She waited for 4 years to do a breast reconstruction because she gave herself time to process and make sure that she was healing properly before deciding on a reconstruction, since it is cosmetic.

As her cancer was already in stage two and it started spreading to two of the lymph nodes, she began her chemotherapy just few weeks later to completely flush it out. There was not a lot of time to digest the situation and heal in between, but she had her back covered with the support from her family and friends.

Her businesswoman spirit spiked, and she kept telling herself, “Eight months of this, I have to try.” She battled with the side effects of chemotherapy with endurance week by week and the support from her family and friends. In the first week, she started to feel nausea and pain while swallowing because the lining of the intestines and oesophagus were eroded. She would sleep a lot throughout the day in a dark room and try palliative home remedy – something her daughter would insist on her – by drinking milk and ginger to neutralise the pain. In the second week, a friend of hers would walk and chat with her as a distraction from her pain. The exercises and emotional supports gave her the strength to get over the effects and let them subside. In the third week, she had a smile on her face and was able to eat a piece of chicken and get ready for the next chemotherapy.

Nqobile’s cancer she was diagnosed with was hormone-positive breast cancer, so she was on tamoxifen for ten years to lower the chances of cancer coming back. As she has reached her menopause at that time after the surgery, the side effect of the drug aggravated the hot flashes. She describes it as a chemotherapy in a tablet form because of the side effects and dryness that she had to deal with, but nothing was unbearable.

The exercises and emotional support gave me the strength to get over the effects of chemotherapy.


From the end to a new beginning – recovery and survivorship

In 2020, it had been ten years that she finally ‘graduated’ from her cancer treatment. She emphasised that her children were her support system that kept her strong. They did not back off after hearing the devastating news, instead, they stood strong next to Nqobile throughout her entire breast cancer journey. They took over her responsibility – her then 21-year-old son acting as her father and 14-year-old daughter as her mother – taking care of her and also of each other. “Mom, you are now my child and I’m your mother.” Those were the words of her daughter that made her say, with love, “Hey guys, you don’t know I’m here because of you.”

Since she was still a married woman, her diagnosis did impact her marriage. She explained that chemo impeded her libido, as her body was switching to survival mode at that time. “It was, for me, to live and survive and make sure that I ward off this cancer from my body.” There was no energy to spare on anything, and at some point she realised that having breast cancer would have had a contribution to her divorce. “Yes, I realised after the divorce that cracks were there already.” Since the incident, she has changed and so have her children. “I was focusing on myself, surviving and embracing whatever the love I was getting from my children and friends and whatever. Was not complaining at that time.”

Many breast cancer patients, especially those who are in a relationship, face more than just a cancer. And Nqobile wishes to encourage them by sharing her experience and advice. Her advice is that you are not the cancer that you are diagnosed with because you didn’t choose cancer, and you must acknowledge that because you are not dealing with yourself. You are better than that and there is a life post-cancer. However, it is going to be challenging as you walk on this rocky path that no one else will have to walk. “I had to walk my own path. You walk your own path. You just need to get strength here and there and soldier on. And it’s not the end.”

I had to walk my own path. You walk your own path. You just need to get strength here and there and soldier on. And it’s not the end.

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