I have read several stories on how some people have survived breast cancer, and how it changed their lives.
All the stories touched me. I empathised with these people, but I never ever thought that one day I would be the one writing about my battle with breast cancer.
My whole life I have been told that eating unhealthy foods exposes one to cancer. I have also been told that it is a genetic thing.
Well, many of my beliefs were shattered in October this year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer – and this was in Breast Cancer Awareness Month. That’s when I knew that anyone can get cancer.
Breast cancer is real and it is not selective. It attacked me, the General Manager of The Southern Times. Tomorrow it could be a CEO, a celebrity, a house helper, a child. Anyone.
In my case, the world started unravelling early in 2021 when I experienced some pain in my left breast. I thought it was because of the type of bras I wore.
The pain would come and go, and it was more pronounced when I was stressed. I never thought of checking with my physician, and I kept telling myself the pain would go away.
It is easy to get preoccupied with one’s children and with work, and to get so overwhelmed with these responsibilities that you put your own health on the back burner. So I chose to ignore the pain.
Come October, as I was getting dressed for work, I felt a lump in my left breast. I asked my husband to also do an examination, and he too said he could feel a lump. He immediately took me to the doctor, who ordered a full blood test while also making an appointment with a breast cancer specialist.
I was given some medication to ease the pain and within two days it had done the trick. And guess what? Because I was no longer in pain I started thinking it may not be necessary to see the specialist!
Days turned into weeks, and the pain crept back.
That is when my good friend, Sharon Kavhu, frog-marched me to the doctor. It was a Monday, and I will never forget that.
When I got to the hospital, the doctor conducted a physical examination before conducting any other tests, and his facial expression scared me.
He started asking about my family medical history as regards cancer, and I knew the die was cast.
“This is bad Gwen, this is bad!” he jolted me. “It looks like breast cancer … You need to get a biopsy now!”
He said the biopsy would help determine the type of the cancer, what stage it was, and what treatment was best.
All the while, my heart was racing, and his words seemed to be coming from some deep, dark place.
I was terrified. I thought of my children, and when an image of my three-year-old daughter came to my mind, my heart broke and my legs went numb.
“Oh no God, I cannot die now. Oh God, what is this? Why is this happening to me?” I silently prayed.
I thought of the stories I had read, of how people died from cancer, how people lost their hair during treatment, how they wasted away, how painful chemo and radiotherapy could be.
Till today, I don’t remember leaving the doctor’s rooms. I do remember walking up to Sharon at the reception, and how she held me as I broke down.
“It’s going to be alright Gwen, you will survive this, whatever it is there is always a solution. Victory starts in the mind,” she soothed as she rubbed my back.
I don’t know how long we rode up and down in the elevator, my legs not working and Sharon hugging me.
As we walked to Sharon’s car, I asked God: “Why me? What have I done wrong? Why me, God?”
We drove to Sharon’s house so that I would have some time to process what was happening and prepare myself to break the news to my family. For two hours we sat together, and finally I decided it was time to go home.
I’ve always considered myself a strong woman, but I felt so weak as I sat on a bed with my children and mentally composed the words I would say to them.
My son Logie said, “Mummy, we are not used to seeing you crying. You are our super mom, you are the strongest.” My other son also held my hand and told me I was strong. And my little baby girl sat there looking puzzled, wondering who was making her mummy cry.
I will be forever grateful for my husband and children; they gave me comfort and strength in those long, dark days.
That first night, I lay down with my eyes closed but sleep would not come. I was counting the minutes to the biopsy. I was anxious, needing to know how far the cancer had spread.
Around midnight I gave up trying to sleep and started researching about breast biopsies. It sounded painful, and I knew I had to mentally prepare for what was ahead.
The next morning, I went with Sharon to have the biopsy at Lady Pohamba Hospital, where four samples were taken from my breast.
The needles to extract the tissue were inserted at the top centre of the breast, the second one slightly under the armpit, and the third on the side of the breast. I have never felt such pain!
The results came a few days later, and the doctors immediately scheduled an operation to remove the lump for further analysis.
The first operation was on October 28, and was hospitalised for one week.
I was afraid to fall asleep, frightened that if I did I may not wake up again. I prayed every hour. I prayed for myself, I prayed for my family. How could I leave my children without a mother?
I have never been used to having people do things for me; I prefer doing things for myself. Not this time. This time, I had to lean on others. But the love and affection made it easy to accept. I could not imagine myself with one breast, I thought it would make me feel less of a woman. However I met a special lady who went through the same battle. She really encouraged me to be bold given that she survived the same battle. It’s a blessing in disguise that I had to get sick to meet such an amazing person.
My family has been a pillar. My friends have been rocks. The Southern Times team has stood by me all the way.
I am also grateful to Sister Aina Nghitongo of the Namibian Cancer Association. She really helped me to remain positive. Gratitude also goes to the Oncology Centre in Klein Windhoek for its unlimited support.
I am also grateful for my Doctor, Dr. Jeremy Nel he stood by me, gave me unlimited support and gave me best medical care. He has been my hero in this process.
Now I understand it when people say emotional support is crucial when cancer comes knocking.
Two weeks after that first procedure, I went back for a review. I was told that the whole left breast had to be removed.
Just a few months earlier, the thought of being a woman with one breast would have galled me. Now, I readily told the medical team that I would rather be alive with one breast than dead with two.
The mastectomy was performed on the November 16, 2021.
It was not an easy time, and again it was the love, care and prayers of my family and friends that kept me going.
As I wait for further reviews and undergo treatment, I want to say “you rock!” to every woman who has survived breast cancer.
This year has taught me to appreciate the things we often take for granted – such as good health.
When the year started, I had big plans, and most of them centred on acquiring assets. Now I’m just thankful to be alive and my prayer is for good health and to live long enough to see my children grow and see their own dreams turn into reality.
This festive season, as we celebrate the end of another year, hold your family close and thank God for the important things in life.
*Gwen Snyders is the General Manager of The Southern Times