Life before and after Breast Cancer
By Amanda Power

I feel both humbled and encouraged having been asked to write this piece, in part a story of my life so far, thereby enabling me to deliver my message to the people of South Africa and the world.

Humbled as I don't know if I am worthy of this great honour and encouraged by people like yourselves who are enabling me to speak out and tell my story, which really is just one of survival.

I would like to begin my story by giving you a little background on myself and where I come from.
My husband, Richard, and I grew up in Fish Hoek and have known each other since high school. In our twenties we travelled overseas together getting engaged in Norfolk, England before deciding to return to South Africa to marry. Our life together continued fairly normally for a few years, both of us concentrating on our careers and trying to make headway in life.

It wasn't without real thought and excitement that we decided to try and start a family but this proved a challenge from the very beginning and ended up our spending many years with specialist fertility doctors.

We were very lucky in that after our first in-vitro fertilization (commonly known as test tube babies) I fell pregnant with twins. What a moment of amazement and pure joy celebrated by stunned silence from Richard (the news of twins was a lot of information for him to take in all at once). We met my mother and grandmother for a lunch filled with many celebratory phone calls and the tea room we were in was alive with chatter about our news. My pregnancy continued routinely, we went for all the necessary and exciting scans, how amazing to see two little heartbeats, I will never forget what they sounded like and I am lucky enough to have them recorded.

I remember attending my mother's Christmas lunch at the University of Cape Town and sitting opposite a lovely lady whom my mom was proudly telling about my twin pregnancy. The lady looked at me and said, "wow double the joy", and that was what our twins truly were to us. We loved them with all our hearts from the very beginning and I felt so proud and fulfilled.

However, devastatingly, half way through my pregnancy my waters broke. I was immediately hospitalised and after spending six weeks in the maternity ward our children were born prematurely. I find it too painful to go back on my notes from that time, I still I find I haven't reached a place where I am strong enough to do so. So I am writing from a shocked and battered memory and one which I hope to be accurate.

I was lucky enough to experience the actual joy of giving birth. We held our own two babies in our arms for a few moments before they were lost to us forever. I was able to look down on two little perfect beings that Richard and I created (albeit in a test tube) and feel that sense of awe and absolute adoration that every parent must feel at the time of a birth. We think of our two little angels each and every day of our lives and often chat about them, even three and a half years down the line. The little lives of Christopher and Gemma has made a major impact on Richard and my lives forever.

In the years that followed I had three more in-vitro fertilizations and six artificial inseminations but sadly none of our future attempts at falling pregnant succeeded.

I am no longer able to have children of my own but there is always hope at the end of a dark tunnel and for me that hope comes in the form of my beautiful, younger sister, Tessa, who has offered to carry a surrogate pregnancy for me. This is no small under-taking, something like this affects every individual in a family. Not easy for Tessa's husband and small children to understand that their wife and mom is going to be giving their baby away. But my family is a close and tightly knitted team and we will cope well, we aren't scared of asking for help, advice or counseling and will look to the experiences of others who have been through this journey when the time comes.

I can't tell you how I live for this moment in time and for my dream of raising a family to become a reality 鈥 it is a thought I keep alive each day of my life.

There is a general consensus that my cancer (which I am about to tell you about) was caused through all of the very strong hormone treatment that I was on for many years but I have always maintained that I would never change the experience, as tough as it was and even with the results we had.

It was in August 2007 that our lives were once again adversely affected. After two "clear" biopsies taken on a lump in my breast, mammograms and various ultrasounds I went into hospital to have what I was assured was a harmless growth removed and came home with breast cancer. I was 35 and my life and that of my family, had changed forever.

Following my first operation on Thursday 23 August 2007, I was allowed home for the weekend in order to pack my things and prepare for a further operation. I remember nothing of this dreadful weekend. The one and only memory I have is of being in the pharmacy collecting all of my required medication and feeling very nauseous. Its amazing how one's body goes into shock to protect itself. Mentally I just could not grasp that this life changing and life threatening occurrence was happening to me.

I believe that Richard and I went to see the film Hairspray of which I remember not a scene - this was an obviously vague attempt to take our minds off the present situation.
Monday morning saw me back in hospital facing my second operation and a battery of tests.

Shortly after my second operation chemotherapy began. I don't think anyone is ever quite prepared for this eventuality, I suppose in my case it was fear of the unknown 鈥 all I know is that I have never looked so forward to anything but the end of those six months. I always felt bad, as they say you should never wish your life away!

My brother, his wife, my sister and baby nephew flew home from England to be with me for my first chemotherapy - which turned out to be something I never once had to endure alone. One of the gifts this disease gave me was that it enabled me to meet my precious little nephew Joshua and experience a few months of him as a baby. I cannot tell you what an amazing distraction he was for all of us over my first three months of treatment. Towards the end of their stay I wasn鈥檛 strong enough to pick Joshua up but he didn鈥檛 mind, he still gave his bald aunty a grin and a big frown each time I wore a wig, which I took to mean that he liked me bald just like he was at the time!

Richard was with me for each of my six treatments as was either my father, mother, brother 鈥 Nick, or sister 鈥 Tessa. I find this amazing as I have a friend my age that has been though this journey and her husband never once attended a chemo session! My never being alone was one of the major factors which enabled me to cope with chemotherapy, the dreadful needles and drips. After years of fertility treatment I am terrified of each and every needle or anything which resembles one.

Every three weeks I had a hand holding mine, someone there to help me along with my chemo drip and negotiate a trip to the toilet. I was also always guaranteed of some chatter. Never once did I have to sit and read during chemotherapy (like I saw so many patients whom were on their own doing) 鈥 for me it just wasn't a relaxing experience and a book would never have replaced the personal touch my family added. It must have been so scary for them, seeing all of the doctors, wards and other bald patients for the first time as well as learning all about the daunting chemotherapy experience and cancer process from my very knowledgeable doctors.

Chemotherapy made me very ill and a shadow of the person I once was. I was hospitalised and bed-ridden on a couple of occasions but I still managed to do some amazing things during my treatment. I went away to Langebaan with my family (the toughest car ride ever thanks to the South African roads and my sore bones!). I managed to secure my last chemo for just after Christmas and in that way I was able to celebrate a special day with my family and friends. I celebrated New Years Eve (alas I didn鈥檛 make midnight!), went to a few wine festivals, enjoyed many lunches out and threw a special birthday party for my sister who was turning thirty. I had a wonderful day at Kirstenbosch Gardens where my father was displaying his impressive bonsai trees.

Of course I had to succumb to the horrors of losing my hair. Now I know why many people say "just shave it off". I partly heeded to advice and had my bra length blond hair (I know you wouldn't believe it was blond!) cut short. Still this did nothing to quell the shock and horror of clumps of hair falling out in my hands as I ran them over my head. I was terrified of the wind blowing particularly as I didn鈥檛 want to loose my hair on one of our outings to a wine festival!

My hair-dresser was kind and generous and came to my parents house (where I lived during my chemotherapy treatments) 鈥 that way I didn't have to feel the embarrassment of having my head shaved in a public place. It reminded me of school days when the chair was placed, on top of newspaper, on the kitchen floor. As usual everyone was there to support me. My hairdresser was gentle and everyone was so encouraging, "you have a lovely head", "perfect ears". It took three days for me to look in the mirror, I felt like a concentration camp victim whose dignity had forcefully been taken away.

I won't ever forget an amazing personal experience my father and I had. Anita my hairdresser had just finished shaving off the last bit of hair and every one was voicing their encouragement but I could see through it and saw the pain in all of their eyes. My dad couldn鈥檛 come into the kitchen, it was his way of coping, so I went to find him in the lounge. I needed a hug from that loving man who brought me up and always reassured me. He gave me the best hug I have had in years and we cried and sobbed. When I walked away I felt like I could face the world again, if my dad approved of my looks everybody would. I went away with a slight smile and a new confidence, what an important moment that hug was for me.

I found Richard, my knight in shining armour, to be full of his usual encouragement and compliments. He would say "don"t worry Mands you look lovely bald" (I have since found he prefers me with hair!). I am sure he often felt embarrassed in front of friends of friends and other acquaintances, just as I did, but never once did he let onto this.

He vigilantly explained my situation to all that asked and I never had to endure the pain of retelling my story 鈥 that is until I was ready to do so.

My mom was and still is, my pillar of strength. She can't help being the amazing, supportive, loving woman that she is. I remember having been bald for about a week when my mother was finally able to persuade me to go along to the local mall with her. This was, she told me, because she needed my help in selecting a present for my little nephew. I have since worked out that this was a gross lie and in fact her way of getting me out in the world again. She never rushed me, she let me take my time, in fact I think we sat in the parking lot for about fifteen minutes until she had once again re-assured me that no one would look at me - but people do don't they? My mother let me know that she would always be by my side, that she would never feel ashamed or embarrassed by me. She would always support me no matter what. She taught me that I had the strength somewhere deep inside myself to face those staring eyes and looks of wonder. And with her help I found it and we went into the mall and once I had done so I discovered that it wasn't that bad and people were looking because they felt sorry for me and my situation.

What has always amazed me is why don't people stare at a bald man?

Another incident that really sticks in my mind is that of a close friend's baby's birthday party. I was only in my second month of treatment yet physically I was already so old, weak and tired 鈥 that horrid gaunt look of a chemo patient tells it as it is. Although my friend only lived across the road from us, it took all my strength (and that of my mother and sister) to walk me there. I remember sitting propped up with cushions at the garden table watching my friends and family yet feeling so detached from everything that was happening around me. I will never forget the look of pity, sorrow and helplessness in my dear friend鈥檚 eyes as well as the true worry in my mom鈥檚 eyes that day. I desperately wanted to change that image. Now鈥檚 my opportunity to show them that I am my fit, happy, fun-loving, bubbly and fighting self again, able to overcome any obstacle thrown my way. I appreciated all of the concern but I never wanted to be pitied.

At this point I must also mention that throughout my chemo Richard and I never had to cook one meal. My close group of friends rallied around and three meals a week were delivered to our home, portions of which we could freeze. This was no small task considering the fact that I am a vegetarian and my husband a meat and potatoes man. Once all my treatment was over, we threw a party at my parents'house in my friends鈥 honour. My parents put together a fabulous and tasty spread, one that my friends are still talking about!

Months of recovery have followed my treatment, however, I am now able to look back and say:
Two operations, six months of chemotherapy - followed by radiation - have allowed me to get to the place I am now 鈥 cancer free!
I must just add that those excruciating breast drains succeeded in securing my husbands desire of breast implants going out of the window!

Radiation of course followed chemotherapy but what a breeze it turned out to be for me. I was very lucky and had no really bad reactions I could complain about. Of course I constantly looked like I had been dusted in icing sugar from head to toe but wow, that mazina worked a treat.

I used to think chemotherapy was out to kill me but I have discovered I was wrong 鈥 instead it gave me so much 鈥 it gave me my life. This disease has given me a strength I never knew I had along with resilience, determination, hope, trust, love, understanding and compassion. I am determined to be an old lady who looks back on her life full of wonder at her achievements both large and small. Cancer has brought with it new hobbies and interests, like my China Challenge, which I am now about to tell you about.

On the 3rd April 2009 my husband, Richard, and myself plan to undertake a very special Challenge. We like to think that we are no different to anybody else yet in some ways we are as we have lived and survived through many a struggle that not many people our age have had to endure.

The 鈥淐hina Challenge 2009鈥 promises to be a very special fundraising event. We are part of a diverse group of 32 South Africans, ranging in age from 34 鈥 61 years old, travelling to Beijing, China to take part in this 85km trek along the Great Wall of China.

The tour itself is being organised by a woman called Sally Berriman whose sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago. Sally and her sister-in-law participated in a similar hike last year, their tour being arranged by a UK based charity. They managed to raise just over one million Rand for the various charities involved.

I am participating in this Challenge for other girls like me who have recently been diagnosed or who are living with breast cancer. I would love to show them that, unbelievable as it may seem, things do get better.

Our Challenge is aimed at raising awareness and funds for breast cancer patients and research worldwide. It is a tangible way to show that we can make a difference to the lives of people affected by breast cancer and in doing so celebrate the courage of survivors (and their families) affected by cancer.

This Challenge means so much to me personally and there are so many people I want to achieve this life goal for, namely, for Richard, my knight in shining armour throughout all of our ups and downs. I know if it gets too tough he will carry me as he always has. For my parents and family who cried many tears behind closed doors but always put on a brave face when I was near. Always there to support and encourage me to continue the fight 鈥 those tears have formed a giant wave which I plan to ride on for the rest of mylife. My friends have taught me the meaning of true friendship and devotion, as have my numerous and dedicated doctors. It's also going to be wonderful to know and be able to once again prove to myself that I can overcome any and all challenges thrown across my life's path.

We will be hiking for up to eight hours a day - amazing, when you think that I struggled to reach my own front gate a few months ago, and our journey will cover 100,000 steps (included in which is the Heavenly Stairway, although why they call it this is beyond me as I believe that it is four hundred and thirty six steps long, some of the steps being knee height and near vertical 鈥 nothing heavenly about that is there!).

We will apparently encounter sunshine, rain and snow (if you can believe it!) en-route. Beijing's winter runs from December to March and temperatures can drop to anywhere below minus twenty degrees Celsius. The rainy summer season is from May to August during which time temperatures can reach thirty eight degrees Celsius. Our trip in April coincides with spring and we are hoping to experience more moderate conditions then.

We will be walking through varying and challenging terrain and passing through remote parts of China. These remote areas comprise of farming areas, small rural country towns and national parks. The path apparently varies from a fairly non-existent rough trail to mightily constructed and renovated sections of wall which were wide enough to have taken six horses abreast.

One imagines the huge and imposing Great Wall of China to be a long and continuous winding wall that joins point A to point Z. In fact this is not the case at all. It is a series of wall sections that make up the Great Wall, parts of which date back to 200BC and all of which do not necessarily join up.

If for example, there are steep mountains along the way, the wall ends and starts again on the other side (I am rather glad about that really!). The way our itinerary is planned is that we do not ever backtrack or walk the same section of wall twice.

Our accommodation will be basic back-packer type lodges, clean but by no means luxurious. The lodges will provide our meals (I believe the Chinese eat very little bread and no dairy so Richard will certainly return home slim). They will also provide a packed lunch and water each day which we are to carry along with foul-weather gear.

What a victory when we all reach the summit together. I have been promised that there will be a large bottle of champagne awaiting us, in fact that's one of the main reasons for my doing the hike - I have a particular passion for champagne!

Helping each other along the way will enable each of us to overcome our own limitations and fears (like my great fear of ladders. I believe that I also have a very steep toboggan run down a mountain, at times steep and treacherous drops to both the left and right hand sides of us, and to top it all a terrifying zip wire across a valley to look forward to). Possibly they will consider giving me a glass of champagne prior to all of these terrifying ordeals!

I hope to establish life long friendships through this Challenge, both amongst our group as well as with the many people we encounter along the way 鈥 all of which I plan to photograph and journal. After all, we all have a common bond of sharing in the fight against breast cancer. I know that this trip is the beginning of many valuable ties that will be bound by our unique Challenge experience.

At the end of it all I have no doubt that each of us will have to overcome our own personal difficulties along the way, mostly physical exhaustion rewarded by a great sense of achievement.

It makes me safe to feel that I will have Richard, my devoted husband, by my side (especially when passing the sheer drops). I know that he will encourage me along the way and I think that on a personal level it鈥檚 another great challenge for us to reach together. What an amazing memory we will have to tell our grandchildren one day!

We have decided our motto is going to be: It is so easy to forget how we battled, what mountains 鈥 literal and otherwise 鈥 we climbed.

Last year's Challenge managed to raise just over one million Rand for the charities involved.

A more sobering and sad but interesting fact is that during last year鈥檚 six day trip, over seven hundred and fifty women were diagnosed with breast cancer 鈥 the astonishing thing is that this figure represents the United Kingdom alone!

Anyway, after mentioning all of these tedious facts to you, I thought I would entertain you with some quotes which emerged from last years Challenge namely:
鈥淒oreen's Gin in the water bottle made a surprise for me as I tried to brush my teeth with it鈥 and 鈥淚 collapsed in a heap on the bunk whilst Cathy the plumber fixed the basin with her teaspoon鈥 and finally, 鈥渨e were dancing around the open fire to the sound of Michael Jackson in deepest China, whatever next鈥. Comically, I believe the Chinese also have a great affection for the tune "Auld Lang Syne".

The charity that Richard and I have committed to raising sponsorship for is St Luke's hospice, that being the reason I am here today. I hold this organisation dear to my heart as my beloved Grandpa enjoyed the wonderful care at St Luke's in Kenilworth in the last weeks of his life (in fact the 10th anniversary of his death passed only last week).

As I am sure you are all aware, St Luke's Hospice provides palliative care to over nine hundred terminally ill patients and their families on any given day, in the greater Cape Town area. The costs to run this organisation amount to R22 million a year.

The various ways in which St. Luke's Hospice supports our community are as follows:
鈥 They deliver quality care to patients and their families
鈥 They train caregivers from our communities
鈥 They provide ongoing, follow-up care in the in-patient unit
鈥 The in-patient units provide backup to community hospices
鈥 They provide counselors who offer a professional service to assist patients and their families deal with social, emotional and spiritual issues
鈥 They teach their knowledge and skills to medical faculties, social workers and other paramedical departments of the Universities of Cape Town, Western Cape and Stellenbosch, Nursing Colleges and other institutions.

Hospice is about the quality of living with an illness that can't be cured.

Having being involved in the China Challenge I have personally experienced the hardship of raising sponsorship and how charities literally have to fight for the struggle to survive (especially with the present world recession looming over our heads).

By taking part in the China Challenge, Richard and I have various ideas of how to raise sponsorship for St Luke's Hospice:

Firstly, we are in the process of gathering the names of eight five newly diagnosed breast cancer patients between the ages of twenty and forty years. At every kilometer (remembering that the hike comprises eighty five kilometer's) we will pin a breast cancer ribbon bearing the name of one young girl onto our backpack. This act represents our way of supporting her 鈥 we plan to carry her along with us both physically, in a sense, and spiritually.

Secondly we would like to target individuals as well as local and international companies for donations for every kilometer walked. These supporters may be people whose lives have been touched by cancer either themselves, family, friends or colleagues. What all these supporters have in common is that they will make a difference.

We have also been offered sponsorship by an international sports brand thereby enabling us to host a golf day whereby we will raise funds for our Challenge and St Luke's Hospice 鈥 we are planning this event for early 2009.

Another idea is to keep a travel diary detailing our progress each day. This will also record information on interesting sites and facts we encounter upon our way. Caxton magazines have offered to run an article in one of their magazines (most probably Shape Magazine) upon our return to South Africa in April 2009.

We are also investigating having a website link recording a live video diary detailing our daily progress.

I am presently kept very busy building my own website which I plan to launch as a place of refuge and support for girls like me. My website will be aimed at girls between the ages of twenty to forty years of age, as this is where I found support to be most lacking.

It will be a website where one can learn more about breast cancer and its treatment, help to understand what ones body and mind goes through at the time of diagnosis and during months of treatment 鈥 both these periods can be very frightening and lonely times.

It will also be a place where girls can be inspired by the many survivors they encounter on the site, whilst gaining helpful tips - like the thought my parents had to hire an "egg shell" mattress for me during my treatment, oh how that saved my very sore bones! It helps to have caring personal advice from others who have been in our shoes.

Through my becoming involved with the China Challenge and St Luke's Hospice, so many unexpected doors have opened to me. This experience has provided me with a new hobby (if one can call it that) and enabled me to venture into really new territory thereby growing on a personal level, which is something I think we all aspire to do.

I have somehow become an Ambassador for St Luke's 鈥 a role I cherish and feel honoured to claim.

I've always believed if you go through anything, even something as difficult as cancer, something good can come out of it. I have come to realise that it's not so much what happens in your life, it is how you deal with it.

I have also come to realise that health is a gift not to be squandered and that your attitude determines your day.

In closing, I hope that I have inspired and motivated you all today, somehow enhanced your energy and filled you with enthusiasm. I hope I have encouraged you all out of your comfort zones 鈥 the benefits, I can tell you, are hugely empowering and so positive.

My goal was that you all realise that just one person standing up for our struggle can make the world of a difference to people like me. If I have accomplished this then I have already done part of what I set out to do. They say the power of words is more than the power of swords, and I hope I have proved this to be the case today.

I will leave you with one last inspiring thought: how many women climb their own mountain, each and every day, in their fight against breast cancer. Its time to show the world that we care.

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