Stay a-breast of your health with 5 authentic stories

by Antonella Dési
breast cancer is one of the most common cancers for South African women of all races
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Stories about breast cancer should not be concealed whispers, but rather boldly proclaimed tales that aim to uplift and educate society. We talk to five brave breast cancer warriors who shed light and insight on their battle and their journey. By Antonella Dési

According to the National Cancer Registry (NCR) in South Africa, breast cancer is one of the most common cancers for South African women of all races, with a lifetime risk of approximately 1 in 27. I talked with five extraordinary individuals who have dealt with breast cancer.

They generously shared their personal narratives, shedding light on the challenges and misconceptions they encountered along the way, while also highlighting the sources of hope they discovered on this difficult  journey. I think it’s important to note that it was not easy to find black women to talk to me as I learned that unfortunately there is still a stigma in black communities around breast cancer.

Catherine Ditshane Letlopo (57) 

Catherine was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 after she went for a mammogram on noticing a bloody discharge from her nipple. Her diagnosis came back positive a month later, and she was successfully treated with surgery and chemotherapy at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (Bara).

“Dealing with the professionals in the Bara Oncology Department was a wonderful experience – they were kind, professional, knowledgeable, and an incredible support for me,” she says. Unfortunately, this year Catherine’s cancer returned more aggressively, and has progressed to the lung and brain, and so she remains in treatment.

She notes that one of the most difficult things for her to deal with was losing both of her breasts: “Before my diagnosis, I had beautiful big boobs, and I enjoyed wearing clothes that showed them off. Now, I often feel sad when I look in the mirror. I have had to get a whole new wardrobe and completely change the way I dress. I use the prostheses at times, which really helps my self-esteem.”

Catherine notes that as a person who was used to doing things herself, losing some of her independence was difficult: “If you are lucky enough to have a good support structure, then it is important to learn how to lean on them without feeling guilty. You need to learn how to put yourself first.”

She says that finding a support group made an enormously positive impact on her mental wellbeing: “Reach for Recovery really lifted my spirits when I needed it most – being with people who really understand what you are going through is so very helpful.”

Kerryn Lawson (53) 

Mother of two teens, Kerryn was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 50 when she went for her annual mammogram. “The doctor told me that it was breast cancer on the same day that we went into lockdown. The diagnosis really scared me, and the thought of being admitted into a hospital during the pandemic also freaked me out. As it turned out however, spending the time on my own in the hospital was really cathartic – I was happy for the silence and the fact that I could just focus on myself,” she says.

Luckily, Kerryn’s cancer had not spread and seven days after the initial diagnosis, she underwent a lumpectomy, radiation therapy for 28 days, and she was put into medical menopause.

Kerryn notes that early detection is key: “I was very lucky that I have gone for an annual mammogram since the age of 40, and due to this, I was diagnosed early and treatment was fairly straightforward.”

She explains that her diagnosis did change her: “I eat healthier, I try not to sweat the small stuff anymore, and I think I’ve evolved into a kinder person. These days, I take it easy, and keep things calm and slow. One thing that this journey really taught me is that life is short, and that there is no better time than now to start doing what you love. It gave me the courage to do something that I have wanted to do for a very long time – open my own business, which I have done – the Boho Beach Co.”

Lorna Kwint (43) 

“About a year ago, I felt a lump in my left breast and swelling in my lymph nodes. I thought it was just a cold, but when it didn’t clear up, I went for a mammogram, only to be told that I had stage 3 breast cancer. I felt intense shock on initially hearing my diagnosis, but then I made a conscious decision to get on with it and move forward positively.”

She notes that she was fortunate to be able to receive treatment from some incredible specialists: “Two weeks after my initial diagnosis, I started chemo and immunotherapy. I supplemented my treatment with essential oils, which helped my liver cope, and alleviated some of the side effects. Being a mom of two young children was also a great motivator to fight and get better.”

One of the things that surprised Lorna the most was the outpouring of support that her and her family received from places where it was least expected: “The parents at my kids’ school, Jan Celliers Afrikaanse Laerskool, was truly unbelievable – prepared meals were delivered to our home by parents almost daily, the school secretaries knitted me beanies, and I received check-ins all the time to see how we were coping. I was also very grateful that my sister flew out from Ireland for an extended stay to help out.”

Lorna offers some pearls of advice that she learned along the way: “Break the journey up into the smallest steps possible, and take one step at a time to avoid feeling completely overwhelmed and full of angst. Everybody is going to give you advice – take what serves you and let go of the rest. Remember, you can’t do it alone – success is a team effort – so take the help, say thanks, and have gratitude. And lastly, a positive outlook can make a big difference!”

breast cancer is one of the most common cancers for South African women of all races

Sonja Kenny (51)

 In August 2020, Sonya felt a sharp pain and lump in her left breast. She initially thought that she had sprained a breast muscle, but went to the clinic to have it checked out. She was sent to the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Hospital in Kimberley for a mammogram and sonar, and after a biopsy, it was confirmed that she had breast cancer.

Sonja opted for a bi-lateral mastectomy, and underwent chemotherapy. Today, she is happy to announce that she is healthy and in remission, and feeling on top of the world.

Sonja says she is full of gratitude: “I am most grateful for the hospital’s Oncology Department – I can’t fault the medical professionals who I dealt with, they were absolutely brilliant. I am also really grateful for my family and friends who stood by me through this ordeal. I have four adult sons, and knowing that I had to be strong for them helped me move forward with fortitude. I am lucky to have a husband who was also an incredible support.”

Since her recovery, Sonja has become the Northern Cape Chairperson for Reach for Recovery, which has brought her much joy: “We are involved in outreach and visiting breast cancer patients. We talk to patients and offer advice, information and exercises that can help them. Many of the patients we deal with are illiterate, so our service of offering explanations and practical advice is very well received. We also run a programme that gives out subsidised silicone breast prostheses, which is funded via money raised by the Ditto Project.”

She says that this journey has humbled her: “I am no longer as materialistic as I used to be – I appreciate everything I have and everybody I have around me. At the end of the day, you can have truckloads of money, but if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”

Lisa Temkin-Todes (46) 

It was mid-December 2020, when most businesses were getting ready to close down for the festive season, when Lisa first felt the lump in her breast. “I panicked and wanted to get it checked out as soon as possible – but finding somewhere that was still open at that time of the year was not easy. After spending hours phoning around, I found the Pink Ribbon Centre, which managed to squeeze me in before they closed for the year. Once they had completed the mammogram and sonar, they were sure that it was a tumour and did a biopsy immediately. I got the positive results a few days later, just before Christmas. It was really scary news to hear…”

Lisa is emotional when talking about her journey with breast cancer: “It’s a rollercoaster. When you start the journey it’s a matter of putting yourself in somebody else’s care, trusting the process, and taking it day by day. However, the trauma of it all only really hits you much later. Therapy has really helped me deal with it all, but it is important to find a therapist who actually understands the process. I think going through breast cancer is much like having children – you can’t possibly understand what it feels like unless you have been through it yourself, or it has impacted your life on a personal level somehow.”

She explains that chemo is brutal, and especially difficult if you have children: “You want to be strong for them, but you can’t even do the simplest things, like making their lunch or reading to them, because of the intense nausea and body aches. Which is why having a support network around you is pivotal. Jewish support group, DL Link, were incredible – they sent through meals, treats, and food for specific Jewish celebrations. My friends made a meal roster, and arranged to drop off a dish every day for five days after every chemo treatment. And my family offered so much emotional and practical support that really got me through the toughest times.”

This journey has made a lasting impact on Lisa’s life: “I have learned about the importance of self-love, living in the moment, and not taking your health for granted. Regular check-ups are essential, as early detection is vital. There has been so much scientific headway made in the field of breast cancer over the past five years, that with early detection, it no longer needs to be a death sentence.”

Also read: Busting breast health myths

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