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Jayne Law

A month before Christmas, I was diagnosed with aggressive, stage 3, infiltrating ductal carcinoma of the breast. On a balmy Friday in summer, I was strolling through the mall with an hour to spare before fetching my children from school. I had just completed my final corporate gift project for the year and was chatting on the phone when I felt a slight twinge below my left collar bone. I rubbed it and immediately knew something was wrong. There was a hard round lump in my chest.

Even though my mom’s a breast cancer survivor, I was completely unprepared for this. I had been advised to start having regular check ups 10 years before the age my mom was when she was diagnosed. My mom was diagnosed when she was 64. I was 46... What a fail! However, I had been very proactive, with mammogram screening every year since the age of 40. Ironically, I’d just received a reminder that my next mammogram was due. I had also recently undergone a breast examination at the gynae. This was an epic fail!

Monday morning’s mammogram revealed a second deeper tumour. Within a week I had a radical mastectomy, and was scheduled for 6 months of chemotherapy as soon as I recovered from surgery. This was far worse than my mom’s diagnosis ten years ago, she hadn’t needed chemo. I knew cancer could be formidable opponent. And that is all the acknowledgment that I was prepared to give to the disease. I did not Google the diagnosis, I did not research my prognosis, I did not get a second opinion, I did not want any preconceived ideas about this disease or my treatment.

I did not want to give cancer any power over me at all. My husband Mike researched the surgeon and the oncologist and told me they were both highly respected specialists, at the top of their fields of expertise. That was good enough for me.

Love and concern for my four children was all the motivation I needed to get through this. My children had all suffered loss. My older two, Jordan and Gemma, had lost contact with their biological father many years previously. The twins, Matt and James, my step sons, had lost their mom at a young age.

There was no way they were going to lose another parent! Over my dead body!

And Mike and I had been through too much to now lose it all to cancer. We’d had a challenging couple of years and to top it all, Mike lost his Dad a month before my diagnosis. We knew that the best years of our lives were just around the corner. We just had to nail the cancer.

We put on a very brave face for our children, keeping everything up beat and positive. I could not and would not give into fear. Instead, I saw great humour in this bizarre situation, family gathered, we celebrated Christmas and we all laughed a lot. New year began with my first chemo session, Mike and a close friend beside me for moral support. I was on the CEF treatment program, which consisted of 9 different intravenous drips.

A couple hours later, I left the Chemo Suite, armed with enough anti nausea medication to stock a pharmacy. We celebrated with cappuccinos and cake. That became the ritual. My dear friend, who had recently suffered a devastating tragedy herself, baked me the most delicious cakes, and we did the four C’s – chemo, cappuccino, cake and celebration - throughout my treatment.

My self imposed media blackout and censorship on all things cancer could not protect me from the chemotherapy horror stories that friends, family and even medical staff insisted on sharing! I told myself that chemo would be different for me, and I changed the subject as quickly as I could.

I was warned about the “red devil” or “red death” that one of the red coloured breast cancer drugs was notoriously named. At the start of my treatment, I renamed it my Strawberry Daiquiri.

I watched and felt every cold drop travel through the tubes into my veins. I visualised a thick fluorescent, glow in the dark, radio active, kick ass lava pouring through my body, obliterating the cancer in its tracks. Yes, there are side effects with chemotherapy. I have “chemo brain”, I forget so many things! But I embraced chemo. Cancer was my enemy, not chemotherapy. One of the greatest side effects of chemo is being alive!

The only real challenge was coming to terms with the loss of my hair. I had always had ample cleavage and long hair, and I was now stripped of both. I found it a very, very vulnerable position to be in. By Valentine’s Day, I was bald, boob-less and bloated from all the steroids. Not ideal.

My theory was that I would make every effort to look as good as I could, and then I would feel good. For the children’s sake, it was very important to me to look as normal as possible, and be as strong as possible. And thanks to my children, I had a reason to wake up and get out of bed. Mike’s career required him to travel extensively so I continued with the usual family routine. On bad days, my mantra was “wig on, chin up”. The organisation “Look Good Feel Better” shares this philosophy and does incredible work with chemo patients. What a difference pencil drawn eyebrows and touch of lip gloss can make!

The only book I read was Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike”. He was my biggest inspiration and gave me immense courage. This hard core, arrogant, machine of a man admitted to being so very frightened by cancer. What a relief! I allowed myself to acknowledge the fear that I previously thought would make me weak!

I intended to write my experiences into a diary. My very own “Survivor: Cancer Island“. There was no time for that, life went on. I was busy enough with four children each day. I also signed up for a photography course, but thanks to chemo brain, I don’t remember any of it!

My daughter Gemma gave me a gift after each chemo session. When my treatment came to an end, she presented me with the most beautiful portfolio of professional photographs taken of the four children, and we celebrated with all the friends and family that had been there to support me. On a sky lantern, we wrote goodbye messages to cancer, and released it into the night sky.

I had reconstruction to look forward to – the final step in my recovery – and just in time for summer! The latissimus dorsi muscle together with skin and tissue from my back was used to create a new breast. The only physical reminder I have of cancer is the long jagged scar down my back, but very fittingly, like the cancer, it is behind me.

The particular breast cancer that I had was estrogen positive, so all the estrogen production in my body had to be shut down. One tablet a day for 5 years makes sure of this.

We learn about advances in medical science, bringing more hope continuously. Brave, proactive role models like Angelina Jolie lead the way. Although Gemma lost her paternal grandmother to breast cancer and has experienced the effect on my mom and myself, she faces the future without fear. If, after genetic testing, she does have the BRCA gene, Gemma knows she has many choices. She is informed and confident.

Mike and I have always lived in the moment, and do so now more than before. Mike stood by me through tough times, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. There is champagne in the fridge for special occasions and sometimes the fact that there is champagne in the fridge, is enough reason to celebrate!

Shalom Mkhize


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