June 3, 2022
Ms. Hardouin became a patient at Busamed Hillcrest Private Hospital’s Oncology unit in 2020 and has kindly allowed us to tell her story. One that she hopes will resonate with those who are experiencing this challenge in their lives, right now.
Tracy Hardouin’s diagnosis came in unexpectedly. On the 4th of February 2020, after a biopsy, her results showed that out of the 19 lymph nodes her doctor removed for testing, 15 were cancerous. And there it was: Stage 3 Lobular Carcinoma. It was the fight Ms. Hardouin didn’t ask for, but one she would throw herself into to end.
The beginning stages of receiving a cancer diagnosis are traumatic. There are too many decisions to be made, too much information to absorb and if that isn’t enough, you’re in fear of the worst possible outcome. “I can’t tell you… the sisters! They got us through this,” says Ms. Hardouin.
“Dr. Adam McCleave clearly and carefully laid out my plan. He said we were going to have to treat the cancer quite aggressively with chemo and I started with the “Red Angel”, as Sister Charmaine calls it.”
The Red Angel is doxorubicin (Adriamycin). It is an intravenous cancer medicine with a clear, bright red colour.
Ms. Hardouin’s plan included three different chemotherapy treatments, a double mastectomy and radiation. She was prepared for the expected side effects such as hair loss – which she encountered 21 days into the program – burns from radiation and physical fatigue that would be drastic.
Tearing up while remembering those early days, Ms. Hardouin says, “It’s quite emotional. I think you know you have to go through it and it’s a journey and a half. There are a group of us (patients) and we call ourselves The Pink Ladies. The eight of us have been through Oncology at Busamed Hillcrest Oncology Centre. You’re going on a weekly basis, for seven months of grueling chemo and there are days that I just didn’t have energy to do absolutely anything. Dr. Rob Wilson was also just absolutely incredible. Your immune system is so weak and you’re constantly tired but needing to get treatment. Even then, the sisters would just go above and beyond. You nod off in the chair and then get a gentle tap on the shoulder and a warm voice coaxing you awake, “Come on Trace, it’s finished now.”
Ms. Hardouin says that it was the level of compassion she received at her lowest that helped her the most.
“Often people would say to me, “You are just so strong and you have such an amazing attitude. But, when you’re in it, you don’t even realise what strength you’re outputting because you’re simultaneously overcoming the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical fight of your life. And because you’re so in tuned with the mind-set that you have to fight and there is no other way and there can be no failing, you do not appreciate just how strong you truly are. So, you just push through and visualise yourself surviving and getting through to the goal you’ve set.”
Enduring the Side Effects
Ms. Hardouin’s journey included the heartbreak of losing the hair on her body, including her eyebrows and eyelashes. She said that in anticipating this side effect, she cut her usually long hair short, but the day arrived when clumps started falling out. “I sat there and my husband shaved my head with tears streaming down his cheeks and I felt so vulnerable but I looked in that mirror and I smiled through my own tears and I admired just how hot I looked with no hair. I mean, I looked sexy.”
She says that in the ward, those enduring treatment with her practiced the most profound self-acceptance and self-love she’s ever experienced. “They say you don’t get fat on chemo, but we shared chocolate and we pitched up in our comfy clothes and we didn’t care about trimming down and how we looked. We joked about all the hair loss (even down there) and we made sure that we injected as much humour and happiness into each session as possible. Cancer can strip you of everything if you let it. We were not prepared to do that. This is why we prefer to call ourselves ‘Warriors’ and not just survivors.”
With her mind fixed upon positive thoughts about herself, her progress, and the life she wanted for herself, Ms. Hardouin was able to find the relief she sought. “I suffered burns as a side effect from the radiation and I still pitched up to my friend’s wedding with Gentian Violet (an antiseptic dye) on my burns and you know what? Everybody welcomed me as a warrior. It was deeply moving.”
Ms. Hardouin also took a few other decisions to help ease the burden of treatment. “In between I also had surgery to put in a port and that happened after my mastectomy. It was a very good decision to make because it’s just easier for your veins and ensures they don’t take a pounding and you don’t have to sit with your arms still all the time.”
When the day arrived to assess her status, Ms. Hardouin received the news she visualised herself hearing during every treatment. It was time to ring the bell. She said that day, she wept for several reasons. “I cried for the patients who didn’t get to stand where I was, but I also cried out of joy for being in remission. I rang that bell so hard that day, I nearly broke the hammer inside.”
She said the celebration of each tolling of the bell is tangible in the ward. “This is why I get so emotional when I talk about my journey. The nurses pooled their own money together and gave me a self-care gift when it was my time to be discharged. They care for you on a level that is difficult to describe. Your victory is their victory. Your loss is their loss. You’ve never felt so visible in your life. That was our safe space.”
Ms. Hardouin says for those who have just learned of their diagnoses, it’s important to guide your thoughts away from the blame audit for why you’ve got cancer. “There is still a part of the human psyche that turns on itself. You ask “why me?” For me, I knew that I was burning the candle at both ends and I had a high pressure job. I was stressed. That was the lesson to me: I needed to be slowed down, and this was probably a very ridiculous way to be slowed down, but it forced me into a space where I actually had to put my health first and who on your deathbed was going to be there? Your family, and your friends for sure. The rest? No.
She says from the beginning, her plan was to be truthful about her diagnosis and progress with her daughter. “I said to her that I would always keep her in the loop and in terms of the truth. I didn’t overshare, but I think it’s very important that we trust our kids with being resilient and not causing their anxiety to spike because we’re afraid of how they will cope. Kids will cope.”
Ms. Hardouin says one of the times she realised how strong her daughter is came at school pickup time. “Friends of hers would wave and say, “How’s mom?” I would be in car in my pyjamas and she wouldn’t flinch. She wasn’t ever embarrassed of me and she would rub my head and say, “Hey, Baldy!” It’s in testing times that you realise that people and connections are stronger than you think.”
Fears of Recurrence
Ms. Hardouin is candid about the fear of having cancer return. “Especially in the beginning, you think about your mastectomy and wonder if they got it all or will it come back? There’s also this term called “scan-xiety” where you go for your stringent checkups, CT’s and MRI’s and you sit there as they pump the stuff (contrast medium) through your veins and you go into the machine and wonder if they will pick up anything.
“When I had my first scan after my treatment, Dr. Wilson phoned me and said there was still a spot on my lung. But he said it could have been caused by the flu. But in the back of my mind, I’m screaming, “Is it cancer? Is it cancer?”” She says she copes with having a fear that it’s going to come back or that it has never gone away. “That’s unfortunately the beast of cancer; it is always in the back of your mind. But you’ve got to actually get your mind into the space where you push it away, otherwise it consumes you.
Ms. Hardouin says after she went into remission, she said to herself that she was not going to entertain thoughts of “what if?” “I had to force my mind – and I am quite a strong person – in the direction that cancer wasn’t going to own me even after I was told I was in remission. And until something pops up at some stage, if it does, I will own and deal with it then. But for right now, I’m here with my daughter and my husband and all the connections to life that truly matter.”
Busamed Hillcrest Oncology Centre
Tel: +27 31 492 4479
Address: 471 Kassier Road, Assagay, Hillcrest, Durban 3610
November 22, 2023
November 2, 2023