Mashego Makola is an articulate, strong and determined young woman. She has come a long way since she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35, when she describes herself as becoming still, quiet and completely numb, unable to absorb the devastating news.
Two years later she is not only a breast cancer survivor but sees herself as an arrow and a star, because stars shine brighter the darker it is and an arrow has a great reach.
This is Mashego’s purpose in attending the Reach for Recovery Breast Cancer Support conference at Cape Town International Convention Centre in Cape Town this week. She says she is really grateful to the Department of Health and Reach for Recovery in Bloemfontein who gave her the opportunity to attend the three day conference so she “can learn, gain experience, network and have a bigger face and voice for Reach for Recovery nationally and internationally”.
It is not the first time a story like Mashego’s has be told. She describes how she found the lump in September 2010. She says, “I felt it and realized it was big. I remember feeling a huge thump in my chest as I realized I was in trouble”.
Ironically she struggled for three months to get someone from the medical profession to take her seriously – they said she was too young, was not on contraceptives, didn’t have a family history of breast cancer and as far as doctors could tell had nothing that linked her with the disease. Three months later she took matters into her own hands and, as she was on medical aid, insisted on a mammogram.
As one of the eight volunteers at Reach for Recovery in Bloemfontein she says she has counselled woman as young as nineteen who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Age is not a determining factor although your chances do increase as you get older.
Mashego says she was lucky to have an empathetic female radiographer who specialises in breast cancer when she went for her tests. The first moment of diagnosis is critical. The comfort and reassurance they gave me was incredible and I was very lucky. They told me they were going to ‘save my life’.
Mashego breast cancer turned out to be Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and on the accepted progressive scale of C1-C4 to determine the severity of the cancer, she was on the cusp of C2 and C3. She was told she needed a mastectomy and possible removal of glands under her arm if the cancer has spread as well as chemotherapy and radiation.
“I believe breast cancer is an emotional, physical and spiritual disease. Apart from the physical diagnosis and surgery there is an emotional and spiritual journey you have to go through as well which can be conquered with love and support.”
Mashego says she had to be spiritually ready for surgery and postponed it for a month. My surgeon understood how I felt and together with my spiritual mentor and family support I prepared myself for surgery. I became strong enough to say, “Whatever happens I am going to live this and see it through.”
She said the chemo, every three weeks, wasn’t as bad as she expected and she managed to work through her treatment – just taking a few days off from her job as a Committee Admin officer at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein. “My hair didn’t really fall out but I looked like I had stuck my finger in an electric plug.”
When asked what the most difficult part of the ten months was she says, “the cancer was not my mountain… although it was difficult, I have other mountains to climb in my life.”
Does she believe there is a stigma attached to breast cancer? She says, “yes in a way. Many women believe they have been cursed, bewitched or punished and the first thing they do want to do is be prayed for. I remember having an ah-ha moment when I heard a pastor on television saying that breast cancer can possibly have a spiritual cause but it has to be dealt with both medically and spiritually.”
How does she feel about going for a check-up every six months? “Lucky”, she says. “I am privileged in that I am on medical aid and am able to be checked. Apart from normal blood tests and x-rays, once a year I have a bone scan to check for any spread. Not all women are able to do this.”