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Oct 13
Bold, brave and surviving breast cancer

By: Lunga Memela (Communication Engagement Lead)

Breast cancer survivor, Sne Khuzwayo.

Last year, one of HST's Psycho-social Advisors, Hlengiwe Madonsela, shared her lived experience as a breast cancer survivor – a moving story that brought hope to many women struggling with the condition, and raising critical awareness that breast cancer can indeed be beaten. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is upon us again, and making the waves across media channels including Ukhozi FM this October is the incredible story of HST's HIV/AIDS, TB and STI (HAST) Technical Advisor for KwaZulu-Natal's Department of Health (KZN DoH), Sinenhlanhla 'Sne' Khuzwayo. Sne has survived breast cancer not just once but twice, 10 years apart, and she is still going strong. 

Sne's ordeal began in 1997 when she first experienced a sharp pain that stabbed through her right breast. The on-and-off sensation lasted for about two weeks. "Initially I thought it was pre-menstrual pains but when it persisted, I suspected and even verbalised it that 'I hoped it is not cancer.' A few days later, I woke up with my pyjamas stained by a discharge from my nipple and that was it, I knew then and there that something was VERY WRONG! Luckily I'm the type that listens to my body and 'acts fast' ALL the time. I did not go to work on that day but went straight to the doctor." 

It was not the mammogram, but the ultrasound that detected Sne's breast cancer. Three weeks later she was in hospital for her first mastectomy, which is breast cancer surgery that removes the entire breast. Lo and behold, 10 years later, Sne felt a lump deep in her right armpit (the same side that had the cancer the first time). A biopsy of that lump confirmed the cancer – yet again! "A week later, I had an operation to remove all the glands on that armpit." 

After much chemotherapy and radiation, and when her body was strong enough in 2009, Sne asked her doctors to remove the other breast. "To everybody's surprise, that 'healthy-looking breast' had already started developing abnormal growths... the X-ray images scared me. This was yet another very difficult decision, but I had to do it, to give myself a chance in life."

Smiling brightly and ever-willing to share her experience to raise awareness and educate others, Sne broadly describes cancer as 'good cells behaving badly.' "We all have cells in our bodies, and at certain intervals, as we grow, they have to divide to multiply. Also, the division happens at a certain rate. Out of the blue, some cells become 'naughty' and multiply more than they ought to. Like a machine in a factory, intended to produce 10 items in a minute, and it just overrides the settings, and decides to produce 30 items. Then a whole big problem starts because those extra items then 'squash' the others because there is not enough space for all of them."

Sne is always happy to share these key messages when speaking in public:

  • Cancer can be beaten!
  • Go through your treatment believing that the pain of the therapy is a necessary road to healing.
  • Focus on getting well (the power of the mind)!
  • The journey is not easy but it is doable!

"I have always been encouraged by people who, when they hear my story, cannot believe it because they have a certain picture of a person who has been through such [trauma]. Regularly seeing the shock in people's reactions when they see me and hear my story, I decided: "This is it! Maybe that's the reason why God chose me to have this condition, so as to surprise people and give them hope."

The need for having good support systems:

Sne has found strength in maintaining good mental and physical health. The love and support that she receives from friends, family, colleagues are crucial. "All the organisations I have worked for over the years have been of equal support. I strive to lead as clean a life as is possible (eat clean, no to very little alcohol, and I surround myself with happy people). Having to live with ONE BREAST for almost a year before I could have a Breast Reconstruction, I would look at myself on the mirror, and not believe what I saw. However, I would think of my then nine-year old son and be like: as long as I am alive for him, it's all okay. Today, he is a grown 33-year-old man, and nothing makes me happier than knowing that I did my part in not denying him a mother by refusing to do the right thing – so as to retain my 'looks'." 

Sne's message to other women:

Ladies, please take charge of your lives. Many of us end up dying and leaving our children behind when it can be prevented.  Please remember:

  • Knowledge is power – Get into the habit of doing breast self-examinations; go for those Pap Smears, and all other necessary tests.
  • Listen to your bodies, and seek medical help as soon as you suspect something. With me, the cancer was caught in early stages because I always and I mean ALWAYS act fast when I feel something unusual.

Sne said she hopes all cancer survivors are already vaccinated for COVID-19 as well. Find out how health sector non-governmental organisation, the PinkDrive, is tackling two pandemics: COVID-19 and Cancer

Just a few months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a Call for Innovation in women's cancers. Also see WHO's scope of the problem with breast cancer.


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