At first her doctors told her nothing was wrong. But then she was in pain for two years.
Ntombikayise Mahlangu was only 18 years old when she felt a lump under her left arm, and in the next two years, two more lumps developed.
Although she was in pain and couldn’t use her left hand properly, she thought the lumps would go away on their own.
At the age of 20, having breast cancer was the furthest thing from Mahlangu’s mind.
“I wasn’t prepared, but after the doctor said I had cancer, only death came to my mind. I was depressed and I cried uncontrollably,” Mahlangu said, now 24 years old.
“I am the first one to be diagnosed with cancer in my family. I didn’t know much about the disease and everything I know today I have taught myself,” she said.
October is breast cancer awareness month and, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), breast cancer is one of the world’s leading killers among non-communicable diseases, with one in three people directly affected and 8.8 million deaths a year.
In 2015, Mahlangu had an operation and surgeons removed much of the malignant tissue under her arm.
Later that year she underwent chemotherapy treatment at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Parktown, Johannesburg.
“It was the hardest time in my life. I had to go to hospital on a weekly basis for a year. The treatment was very intense and often led to dizziness, nausea and body aches,” she said.
“I lost my appetite and my skin turned very dark. I just gave up about everything in life… the pain was too much to handle.”
The sales assistant – who is also her family’s breadwinner – took almost a year to recover from chemotherapy.
Immediately after the treatment, doctors advised her to undergo a mastectomy of her left breast to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
And even though her left breast was removed, she continues to take breast cancer preventive drugs.
Mahlangu said she was grateful that throughout the gruelling process of discovery, acceptance and moving on, her family remained supportive.
Her elder sister, Promise, walked the journey with her from the day she was diagnosed.
“I lost hope that she would survive. But I had to be strong for her, give her hope and I told her that everything would be okay,” she said.
When asked what kept her going, Mahlangu said that when she looked at her five-year-old daughter, Tshiamo, she found strength and hope because she somehow knew she was “bigger than the disease.”
She now has dreams of establishing her own cancer foundation.
Mahlangu was recently included to be one of the faces of a campaign honouring South African women who have survived cancer.
The campaign, run by Twinsaver, features 18 women of diverse ages and backgrounds, and proves cancer can affect anyone.
According to the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa), the five most prevalent cancers affecting South African women are breast, cervical, colorectal, uterine and lung cancer.
The 70th World Health Assembly (WHA) met in Geneva in May this year and adopted a new cancer resolution.
In its resolution, the assembly noted that cancer costs world economies an estimated $1.16 trillion (over R15.5 trillion) a year – a figure that is projected to escalate rapidly if action is not taken to reduce the exponential increase in cancer diagnoses, as well as the impact on both individuals and health care budgets.
The WHA is the forum through which the WHO is governed by its member states and the world’s highest health policy setting body.
The resolution noted that the greatest financial and human impact of cancer is felt “within low- and middle-income countries, where only 5% of global resources for cancer prevention and control are spent.”
Mahlangu said she hoped her story would encourage other young cancer survivors to look at life differently.
“Cancer is not a death sentence. I took it as a test. My strength was tested and now I am stronger than ever,” she said.
“Giving up isn’t an option. All you have to do is to listen and take the doctors’ orders.”
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