Shining light on breast cancer

A searing pinch in her left breast while watching TV in 2012 was the first warning sign that breast cancer survivor Colette Adams, 42, experienced, before her diagnosis in January 2013.

October is breast cancer awareness month and Ms Adams details her tumultuous journey with breast cancer.

Tygerberg Hospital’s Mamma Clinic, which handles breast cancer patients, has helped 608 newly diagnosed patients and 3 391 follow-up patients since the start of this year.

Ms Adams, who grew up in Vasco and has lived in Elsies River for much of her life, said the sensation she experienced was worrying but she didn’t think it could be breast cancer as she had been an athlete at school, walked a lot and didn’t smoke.

“After I felt the pinch, I did my own breast examination and discovered a lump.”

But this was at the same time that her mother had broken her hand getting out of taxi and, as her only child, she had been so busy supporting her through months of physiotherapy that she neglected to seek medical attention herself.

But as the pain in her breast intensified, Ms Adams visited her local clinic.

“I was seen by two doctors on two separate occasions who told me I had nothing to worry about. The pain persisted and on the third occasion I approached a nursing sister who conducted a breast exam, found a lump and gave me a referral letter to Tygerberg Hospital in November 2012.”

At the hospital, they performed, a fine needle aspiration on her, which is a type of biopsy where a thin needle is inserted into the lump to determine whether it is cancerous.

“The sample was sent away for testing and only after two gruelling months did I receive my results. After being given the run-around as to where I should get the results, I eventually went to Leonsdale Clinic,” she said.

She said she had been given her results in a “blasé and insensitive” manner.

“I went to the counter, where one usually gets your folder, and the nurse behind the counter was casually eating peanuts, while she searched for my results on the computer.”

While at the overcrowded clinic surrounded by a myriad patients she was casually told by the nurse that she indeed had cancer.

“I was so shocked. I called my husband, Ralton, and he said everything would work out okay. I live 15 minutes from the clinic, but I was in such a daze it took me three hours to reach my house,” she said.

Ms Adams was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and referred to Tygerberg Hospital’s Mamma Clinic, where another biopsy was done to confirm the diagnosis.

“The cancer was confirmed, and the surgeon scheduled a mastectomy for August 2013,” she said.

She underwent a four-hour operation and her left breast was removed.

“My parents and two children were very supportive. They were brave for my part and they would make videos and send me voice messages to keep me motivated,” she said.

Following the operation, she underwent chemotherapy every third week for four hours at a time.

“Every horror story you hear about chemotherapy is true. Luckily for me, my husband and children would go with me when they were available,” she said.

Ms Adams had flowing black hair before chemotherapy and when it started falling out her husband of 18 years shaved her head.

“When your hair starts falling out, you look sick, feel sick and realise you are sick. He was very supportive, and my children and I went wig shopping, which was a great bonding experience.”

After six months of chemotherapy, she underwent radiation treatment every three weeks for 10 minutes. Her cancer has now been in remission since March 2014.

These days Ms Adams is one of eight volunteers for Reach for Recovery who render support to breast cancer patients in recovery.

“I am the youngest volunteer, and we visit women at N1 City, Louis Leipoldt and Tygerberg hospitals. Some women prefer to close the door after they have been through their cancer journey. However, I choose to use my experience to help others.”

She said beating cancer had changed her life: she is studying a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) degree through Unisa, learning Xhosa and volunteering at Elswood Secondary School, where she plans to teach music as she has been an organist at her church for many years.

Mammograms, she said, should be compulsory at clinics as “early detection is the only way to beat the illness”.

Dr Francois Malherbe, acting head of the Breast and Endocrine Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital, said they had diagnosed 572 new patients with breast cancer at the Groote Schuur breast clinic last year and that male breast cancer accounted for about one percent of those diagnoses.

“We see roughly five male patients with breast cancer a year. Male patients are often diagnosed later because they tend to seek medical advice later,” he said.

Dr Malherbe said clinical breast examination (CBE) referred to a breast examination performed by a trained health-care worker and breast self-examination (BSE) was simple and inexpensive.

“The main message for communities and health-care workers is that any woman who notices a breast lump, abnormal nipple discharge, breast ulcer, unexpected breast skin changes, or axillary lump should report promptly to a health facility for further assessment,” he said.

Dr Malherbe said mammography (MMG) was the most commonly used screening test in developed countries.

“It is expensive and complex, requiring substantial financial and manpower resources. The goal of breast screening is to prevent death and not simply to detect cancers by mammography. Screening MMG results in early diagnosis, but the exact benefit of screening mammography in decreasing breast cancer mortality is unknown due to the inconsistency of results across studies. It bears noting that improvements in breast cancer treatment have had a greater effect on breast cancer mortality than mammographic screening,” he said.

Ms Adams urged women to seek a second or even third opinion if they felt something was not right within their bodies.

“It’s important to know and listen to your body as God has made our bodies very responsive,” she said. She said her attitude towards her loved ones and even strangers had changed.

“I will go out of my way to help anyone because I am grateful that I have been given a second chance at life,” she said.