October 24, 2023
Despite a bumpy start to her cancer fighting journey, breast cancer survivor Itumeleng Nhlapho-Letshwenyo celebrated a year in remission recently.
Like most South African women, 48-year-old Itumeleng is a working mom of five, who puts the needs of her family above her own.
So, in early 2020 when she started feeling pain and discomfort in one of her breasts, she brushed it off as “one of those things” and continued about her life.
While the pain was recurrent, Itumeleng continued to brush it off, putting it down to strain caused by the underwire of her bras, and other such trivialities.
This continued for a year before the symptoms became unbearable and she was no longer able to ignore it.
Itumeleng was eventually diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in August 2021 however, her doctors had warned her of the possibility of cancer since earlier in the year.
“When I first got a referral to screen for cancer, I did not go, the pain went away so I thought it was fine. Then the pain came back some time later and then I finally gave in and went in for a mammogram.
“When the results came back my doctor at the time wanted to operate immediately but we had some reservations so my husband and I decided to go back and do some research of our own before making a decision.”
She said she had great difficulty in accepting the diagnosis and it was only through the support of her husband Obakeng Rumours Letshwenyo and her family that she was able to make it through.
She said they visited a number of doctors and got multiple opinions before finally settling on a treatment plan.
“I had sleepless nights thinking about this,” she said.
Finally, in late October 2021, Itumeleng began chemotherapy and radiation, before going in for surgery to remove the mass.
“It was a very long journey and it was painful and difficult. I lost my hair and I was ill. I had to change my diet and my way of life. I also had to put on a strong front for my little kids. But thanks to the support of my husband and family and also my wonderful doctors, I am here today.”
Today Itumeleng is cancer free and while she still has to see her doctor every two months, she is happy and healthy and thriving in life.
However, she says, given the chance to go back she would pay attention to her body’s warning much sooner.
“Maybe there were things that could have been easier or I could have avoided if I did not ignore my symptoms. We are conditioned to think these things do not affect us but it can and it does.
Speaking about the experience with his wife, Obakeng said while the cancer was an emotional, physical and financial strain on his wife, him and their family, he is grateful that they were able to persevere.
“From experience I can tell you that being transparent is very important. There is no time or room for stigmatisation with cancer or any other disease. Support is also very important on this journey. People cannot just abandon their loved ones when such a diagnosis is made. You can overcome this with focus and support.”
Giving advice to women of all ages, Itumeleng said, “Do not ignore pain in your body. Do the pap smears, do the self examination in the shower. They teach you this from school, do not think it will not affect you because it can. Go to the doctor, go to the clinic, get checked up. Live a clean, healthy life, exercise and do the best you can for your health and for your family.”
Obakeng added, “Cancer, like many other diseases, does not discriminate according to colour or creed. We are all at risk and we all need to realise this. It can affect anyone irrespective of colour or age. Do not think it cannot affect you.”
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