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Nina Lunn

My story begins in November 2015, I noticed a small pea sized lump and slight redness to the skin. I left it not thinking once that it could possibly be anything serious, the lump grew and the redness worsened with lymph nodes now appearing swollen under each arm. I still left it… Only when the lump had grown to around 3cm did I make the phone call and see the doctor. This was in February 2016.

I was sent for an ultra sound and given a strong course of antibiotics for 10 days as between the surgeon and the radiographer it didn't look like anything sinister and seemed to be an infection. When I went for a checkup 10 days later the lump had grown another cm and my surgeon booked me in for a surgical biopsy. He phoned me the next day with the results, I found out I had cancer on the same day my grandad passed away from the disease some 17 years earlier. 08 March 2016…

I remember falling to the floor and burst into tears.

I was diagnosed with Stage IIIc, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with an inflammatory response in both breasts and lymph node involvement under both arms. ER and PR (hormone) negative but HER2 positive.

I cannot urge young woman enough to do self examinations and if you notice anything different to rather go to the doctor get it seen to as soon as you notice it. Don't let your age hold you back. My very special oncology nurse told me that if I had come to her she would have automatically thought it was cancer straight away. It is more common than one realises and in young woman it is extremely aggressive, as our cells are young and rapidly divide. In saying this, there are many breast conditions that can create a “lump” that are often nothing serious so its important not to panic but rather be safer than sorry.

My experience with being diagnosed is that often what happens next is a whirlwind of referrals, scans, tests and quite honestly you don't have a moment to breath. In saying this I was a very impatient patient and pushed for answers, tests, treatments… I didn't want a moment to breath, I wanted to get this treated and taken care of at every minute of every day. I was sent straight to a general surgeon but because the cancer was inflammatory, operating wasn't a possibility at this time and I was then sent to an oncologist where I would be put on chemo before the mastectomy. In hindsight which is easier said than done, I wish I had stopped, taken a moment to go for a second or even a third opinion before deciding on doctors or treatments.

My first regimen was a chemo combination called EC (Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide), It is some strong stuff, also red in colour but not the most common of “Red Devils” and I remember having this treatment on a Thursday and would only resurface the Monday ready to get back to work. I would not know what to do with myself, I would get up walk to the bathroom, lie on the floor (feel better for a short moment) get back up go to the bedroom and repeat this process on numerous occasions. If you can imagine being poisoned thats how I would describe the feeling. I was meant to have 4 rounds of this chemo every 3 weeks but I was given an injection called neupogen for 7 days 1 week after the treatment to boost my white cell count which made it possible to try something called “dose dense” treatment where they give it to you every 2 weeks instead of 3 weeks in the hopes that it would work faster and be more effective however after 3 rounds, this treatment failed and I changed to a new chemo called Taxol and a targeted therapy called Herceptin. I had the taxol weekly for 12 weeks and the Herception every 3 weeks, Taxol and Herception was a relatively easy combination and only towards the end of the 12 weeks did I experience unhappy side effects which was mainly mouth sores but it was manageable and I was able to continue working.

After this treatment I went in for a double mastectomy and axilla lymph node clearance under both arms, I had this operation in St. Augustine. I was in a ward of 8 people and befriended an American lady who was in Madagascar on a mission where she was flown to South Africa for an emergency operation. One of the nights her bowel perforated and she was sent back to ICU. I remember her saying to me what an inspiration I am with love and pity in her eyes. I was taken aback because I didn't feel that bad and I felt sorry for her, surely it shouldn't be the other way round. But looking back I can understand, no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, very thin with drains coming out both sides of my chest… I must have looked like I was on my death bed.

Right 6 weeks later after I had healed it was time to start radiation, I had 6 weeks of 4 field radiation on both sides. Again it wasn't as bad as I was expecting but side effects did accumulate towards the end of treatment. My skin became extremely burnt but I got through it!

During radiation, I fell pregnant. It would have been the most wonderful of stories if the situation were different but instead it was another nightmare I had to deal with. Chemotherapy puts you into chemical menopause so your cycles stop. After I finished my treatment my cycles came back, as soon as it did I booked an appointment with my OBGYN to chat about birth control and see what was happening with my ovaries as I always wanted a third child and believed it was still a possibility for me in the future. I wanted to defy the odds. I was told that the chemotherapy I had been on would affect my fertility and it was highly unlikely I would be able to have another baby. Later during the month at the appointment, the doctor performed a scan and low and behold a perfect little bean appeared on the screen. He could not believe it and neither could I but it was confirmed that I was pregnant. After months of chemotherapy, during radiation and on my first cycle back this little miracle was conceived.My oncologist at the time and OBGYN could not have been clearer that the baby would have severe abnormalities and my life would be threatened if I were to carry on with the pregnancy. Lloyd and I made the heart breaking decision to terminate this little bean in the hopes that I would survive and be there for my boys. My boys needed their mother and I owed it to them to make sure that I did everything I could to live for them. Funny thing, the termination failed and I went for another scan where my little might had grown and had the strongest of heart beats. The doctor did not dwell on the screen, quickly turned turned away and gave me no choice but to have an emergency D&C. I still have the positive pregnancy test in my draw next to my bed and know that one day I will meet this little miracle but until then my focus is on my cheeky, busy, naughty but gorgeous boys.

After radiation I was to continue with Herceptin until the year of treatment was up. I went for my PET scan at the end of November 2016 and I was given the all clear, I was told I was in remission and all the hard work and treatments had been worth it. I had done it, I had beaten Cancer. I sobbed in the rooms with tears of joy, I couldn't believe that this was finally over. Only to have realised later my results were incorrect and that in fact I wasn't in remission as I was lead to believe.

This ecstasy was short lived, a mere 2 months later I was routinely feeling my armpits just for interests sake where I felt another lump… surely this wasn't possible? All the nodes had been removed, how could there be a lump? I was sent straight for a fine needle biopsy which confirmed that the node was cancerous. My oncologist wanted a chest CT, abdomen CT and X Rays and I was quite baffled… surely it was just one node that could be removed and that would be that but instead I was scheduled for another PET scan where it revealed that cancer had spread to my liver, nodes in my abdomen and ovaries. I was now stage IV. Again I was rushed to surgeons and being my impatient self was very much keen on moving quickly. My ovaries were removed and I started the process of moving oncologists.

I battled with losing my hair, I battled with losing my breasts but after losing my ovaries I honestly felt empty… I felt like a shell of the woman I used to be and I still battle with this emotion every day. Some days are better than others and I am learning to accept my situation.

I then started on a new treatment regimen which consisted of another targeted therapy called Tykerb and an oral chemotherapy called Xeloda, we believed that the treatment was going well with a reduction in my liver lesions however after my most recent PET scan in July of this year the cancer has spread again, this time to my bones and new lesions in my liver with one tumour measuring 6cm. As the cancer was progressing I could feel my body deteriorating, I had severe liver pain that I could barely walk a few meters and for the first time I felt that my body was sick, I wondered if this would be the beginning of the end but we changed chemotherapies again to a new regimen with a combination that damages the DNA called Carboplatin and Gemzar with the same targeted therapy Herceptin. I have now had 2 cycles of this treatment and the pain has drastically subsided. We are cautiously optimistic that this will work but will only know more once I go for another scan in October. I am not yet a Cancer Survivor but I am SURVIVING CANCER.

The last 18 months have taken its toll on me and my family but I am so grateful and in awe of the support I have received from old and new friends, from the company that I work for to the Horse Racing community to my sons schools. The woman I have met going through the same situation are in fact the most incredible woman I know and have become very close to my heart. I cannot thank my group of ladies known as the Soul Sisters enough for always being there for me as well as many others I have met not on the group.

I managed to work through this whole ordeal and if I say so myself quite well despite everything. I have now been medically boarded to focus all my energy on getting better. But my company Capco have been incredible, without them I would not have had the opportunities I have now and I will forever be grateful for their love and support. My sons schools really out did themselves, Christopher Robin and St. Andrews mommies and teachers are the best I have known. I have had so much love and support through out this, fund raisers and donations from people I have and have never met. These acts of kindness never go unnoticed and makes my heart happy knowing that my family is so loved, I know that if anything does ever happen to me that my boys will be taken care of… They will never be short of love. I am truly blessed with an amazing husband and family near and far who continue to love and support me.

I will continue to do everything I can to overcome this. I believe I will be a miracle one way or another.

Shalom Mkhize


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