Breast cancer treatment 24 years ago
At age 52 I had a voluntary double mastectomy (after removal of a cancer tumour in each breast, six months apart. I wasn’t too surprised when my biopsy came back positive; my mother died from BC, and my family history is ‘littered’ with Aunts and cousins who contracted it.
Mum only sought medical diagnosis after having the “lump” for over a year, and it is sad to think she may have survived had she not feared the diagnosis.
I had the “lump” removed, it was ‘insitu’ meaning fully contained in a milk duct of the breast, radiation was prescribed but I refused to consider it, having witnessed the appalling results on the skin of my mother 40 years previously. I asked to go onto Tomoxifan and was then referred to a visiting Professor to discuss if this was possible – the drug being still on ‘trial.’ To cut a long story short the Prof. agreed but on the understanding that I was aware that possible side effects were still not known, although he did say “we think it is a wonder drug”, and was surprised I knew about it.
At the time I felt as fit as the proverbial fiddle, and continued my judo coaching and daily run as usual, Judo being a sport I had practised since my teens and achieved black belt status at age 20.
On my 50th birthday I entered a 32 km marathon so I could comfort myself that biologically I was NOT 50! I intended to try and complete half of it, but to my surprise, my daily runs had made me fitter than I knew and I finished with a medal!
Consequently, when hit by my diagnosis I didn’t for a minute doubt that my mastectomy was just a hiccup and in fact spent a lot of my time ‘comforting’ my immediately family! I had not told them of the coming op for removal of the “lump” until I was due to go into hospital the next morning – I knew they would be upset and one daughter was due to sit her pilot’s licence the day before the op so didn’t want to worry her.
My youngest daughter was camping with her boyfriend in Nyanga, so no way of reaching her. At this time I was only having the “lump” removed but suspected it was cancer, as they did, due to my family history.
As I settled to sleep the night before the op, I decided to see if there was really any truth in telepathic thought transference (I had recently read a book on this) and visualised her in her tent somewhere as I fell asleep repeating “Gill please contact me”. On awaking the next morning I visited the toilet, and on my return there was Gill standing beside my hospital bed…”I just had a feeling in the middle of the night that I must call home…”.
After the op, in 1992, we were all preparing to accompany Debbie to Barcelona for the Barcelona Olympics in which she was participating for Zimbabwe in Judo. We went to Spain via London and whilst there I contacted a top surgeon for a second opinion about my refusing radiation.
He was adamant that I would get it in the other breast – giving me a 50% chance of re-occurrence. He said with my history it was about 70% but because of my fitness lifestyle reduced it to 50%. He agreed with the recommendation for radiation but when I stated my stand against it he reluctantly approved my being on Tomoxiifan and ended the consultation by saying “when you get it again make sure you attend a Breast Cancer Clinic, not a general surgeon.”
Six months later I found a similar ‘lump’ in the other breast…his prediction was absolutely correct as it was 6 months to the day (50% chance).
Once again I had the op to remove it and once again it was diagnosed as the big “C”. I then seriously considered requesting a double mastectomy – I had large boobs and feared that lurkng within was yet another “lump” steadily growing.
My mind was made up after reading an article in Cosmopolitan Magazine by a female oncologist based in Cape Town. I managed to phone her and when I mentioned that I was considering a double mastectomy due to my family history her response was “my dear, you cannot get athletes foot if you do not have feet!”
I flew to Cape Town and had a consult with the female Oncologist and the Surgeon. As I had not had radiation (apparently radiation would have affected the skin elasticity) they assured me that reconstruction could be carried out immediately following the mastectomy.
It was my 52nd birthday on the day of my operation in Groot Schuur hospital and I looked forward to getting rid of the fear of cancer and seeing my “instant” new boobs.
What a disappointment!
They had removed all breast tissue and put the equivalent of empty balloons under my chest muscles. These Balloons were there to be gradually filled with saline, over a period of weeks, a fluid oz per week injected through an aperture on each side of my ribcage. My new son-in-law Austin had the task of doing this for his mother-in-law every Friday! When I had 600 ml in each side, I had to wait 4 months to allow the chest muscles to stretch and create a cavity to insert a breast implant. I must mention that my 600 ml filled “boobs” were huge and solid to touch.
I was still coaching judo in between ops and one of my classes was Prince Edward School. For you who do not know, judo involves throwing your opponent to and then falling on top of them and immobilising them on the floor for 30 seconds thus winning the bout.
As the weeks went by and my concrete hard boobs grew ever larger I had to increase the jacket size of my judo kit to disguise them; I often wonder what the boys thought as I bore down on them when demonstrating a chest hold – certainly gave me an advantage!
I had a setback when an ulcer developed around the stitches of the op. I flew to Cape Town to check it and they had to remove the implant – so now I had one huge cast iron boob and one flat one. I duly went to the Cancer Association who gave me a ‘falsie’ which was so heavy it made my concrete one feel light!
I solved the problem by buying a big bath sponge, cutting it in half and putting it into my bra. The advantage of this was that after a swim whilst on holiday, I would pretend to scratch my nose, whilst pressing with my elbow onto the sponge, thus squeezing the water out instantly… a good tip for any mastectomy patient not undergoing reconstruction.
Months later, I returned to Cape Town to finally have the implants inserted. My friends were in despair – each trip/op they assumed was ‘more cancer’ and my explanation of what was happening fell on deaf ears. Consequently when I returned with “boobs” I treated myself to a plunging neckline dress and invited all my friends to a braai!
This was hysterical; the men stared at my face so fixedly – obviously not wanting to ‘offend’ by ‘ogling’ my cleavage and the women were somewhat toungu-in-cheek with remarks such as “wow, they look almost real” – to which I responded “yes, and when I am 80 they will still be in the same place”!
At this time Debbie had started her first Gym – Rolf Valley Sport & Health – and commenced teaching for the Personal Trainer Group Fitness Instructor Certification.
I duly joined up and became a Group Fitness Trainer. I combined my judo and karate knowledge with this and developed a cardio self-defence routine.
I did a demo for the Cancer Association and 12 women signed up for a four week course. It was wonderful to see how empowered they were by the realisation that ‘sport’ was in fact not off limits, as many had been told. Debbie is today doing the same thing with her innovative ‘Pink’ classes.
In 1993 I was elected President of the Judo Association of Zimbabwe, a position I held for 8 years, and during that time was invited to Japan, fully sponsored, to the first International Judo Coaching Course for women.
Soon after I decided to take up refereeing – my husband having been an international judo referee for some years. After a few of years climbing the refereeing ladder I was awarded an International “A” Licence, the first woman in Africa to be thus graded, qualifying me to be referee at World and Olympic events – and in 1997 I officiated at the Junior World Championships in Porto. Our eldest daughter Debbie is in that very position now, being a World Referee herself and having officiated at several World Judo Championships.
My next post op ambition was to try for a Personal Trainer Certification. It involved a year of studying at the end of which I realised the exam coincided with a self-defence seminar in the United States at which I was to be demonstrating rape prevention techniques. (My son aged 40 at the time and also a black belt judoka, came along as the ‘rapist’). We were delighted to be voted the most practical self-defence demo – beating 15 other countries and the NYPD demo!
Fortunately, the Personal Trainer exam was also taking place in Florida a week after my Seminar , so I was able to fly to Florida and do the exam there. I found out later that Debbie had taken her own Personal Trainer Exam in the self-same hall years before hand! I am pleased to say I was successful.
During my early days of Personal Training, I realised most clients associated weight loss with getting fit and I decided to take another qualification – namely as a Lifestyle Weight Management Consultant, and was successful after months of studying their dietary regulations – most of which I actually disagreed with – being based on high carbohydrate intake “for energy” – something of the past now!
As a Personal trainer I often encountered clients with aches and pains and this motivated me towards my next goal namely a course in Massage Therapy, covering Swedish, Deep Tissue and Sports Massage.
Three years ago I resigned as President of Judo and became the National Coach and then the National Development Coach . Currently, with the help of my ex pupils who are now coaches themselves, we run clubs in underprivileged areas, where we get great satisfaction from introducing our sport to disadvantaged youngsters.
This dialogue reads like a CV, but is actually to demonstrate that Life does not come to a standstill with a diagnosis of Breast Cancer. For myself it motivated me to pursue these goals. Now it seems the family ‘Tradition’ is set to continue, giving all that my eldest daughter Debbie has already achieved in the one short year since her own diagnosis and double mastectomy.
I realise it is different for everyone, but if caught early it can motivate us to rid ourselves of procrastination. We, (not just Angelina Jolie), pursue our goals fully aware of being blessed with a second chance at life, given to us by the dedicated oncologists and surgeons dealing with our specific disease.
Thank you Carol Anne Benn