2010, Magazine: The Oprah Magazine

Defending My Life


BLESSED WITH A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM: Michelle Rivera (48), diagnosed at 40
“We are blessed to be alive and to have overcome cancer, with such a strong support system. I never take things for granted now.”


After finding a lump in her left breast, Michelle plucked up the courage to go for a check-up. “When the doctor confirmed my worst fears, I was in complete denial,” she says. In shock, she made another appointment for a second opinion, but this time with a specialist in breast cancer. “I tell everyone to seek out a second opinion – and to have treatment with a doctor you trust completely,” she says. After explaining the different options available to her, she took some time to herself and decided upon a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, to eradicate the chances of the cancer returning in the other breast. “All I could think about were my children – and that I needed to be there for them as they grew up – and so, a bilateral mastectomy was an obvious choice,” she says. Eighteen months later, her sister, Debbie Firer, was also diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently also chose to have a double mastectomy as a preventative measure. “It was so hard for me to watch my sister face the same battle I had just been through,” she says. “We are blessed to be alive and to have overcome cancer, with such a strong support system. I never take things for granted now.” Michelle explains how it has made them closer as a family, but has also made them great advocates for the cause, conducting talks through the support group, Bosom Buddies, raising awareness in their area about going for check-ups on a regular basis. “These days, with all the medical advances available, there is no excuse to be an ostrich with your head stuck in the sand!” she says. “Fact is; if you find out early, there is so much you can do and your chances of survival are high.”

BEING OPEN ABOUT CANCER: Nthabiseng Nkache (52), diagnosed at 49
“Before the breast cancer, I was just Nthabiseng. Now, I am so much more – and I try every day to make the most of the time I have been given to value life.”


Nthabiseng Nkache took painkillers to dull the pain she felt in her breasts in the hope that it would just go away. However, when the pain became chronic, she decided she would go for a mammogram. “When the tests confirmed that I had cancer in both breasts, I thought I was going to die – and the pain of leaving my three young children, who had also lost their father in 1999, was just too much,” she says. Her oncologist explained that a bi-lateral mastectomy was the best option for survival for a woman of her age. “Even though I had the support of my colleagues at work, I still felt isolated, because I didn’t know of anyone who had breast cancer in my community in Katlehong,” she says. “There is so much ignorance around this topic. No one ever spoke about cancer because of the stigma attached to it and because it is considered a ‘white person’s disease’.” Nthabiseng decided to get reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy, but last year, the left breast became inflamed with cellulitis and had to be removed. She now uses a prosthesis in place of her left breast. “Before the breast cancer, I was just Nthabiseng. Now, I am so much more – and I try every day to make the most of the time I have been given to value life.” As a nurse, Nthabiseng is passionate about dispelling stigma and often helps other women overcome the initial shock of their diagnosis by sharing her own experiences with them. She encourages others to get tested regularly, not just once every few years. “I don’t have breasts – so what? I am alive – and this is what matters the most to me. If I can survive, then so can anyone else – just take it one day at a time.”

STAYING POSITIVE TO BEAT CANCER: Victoria Pansegrouw (29), diagnosed at 27 
“I have conquered so much and no longer fear all the small things in life. I have also learnt that my friends and family, especially my mom, truly are the amazing people I always suspected they were.”


No one in her family had ever had breast cancer before. When Victoria Pansegrouw discovered the lump in her left breast in November 2008, her whole life changed. “Tears immediately started rolling down my face and I went straight into shock,” she says. “After a while, I decided that considering so many people had dealt with cancer and were just fine today, I would follow in their footsteps and deal with whatever curveballs were to come my way. I was going to beat it and give it the best I could.” Further tests confirmed that she had an aggressive ‘strain’ of cancer and that she was HER2-positive. Her oncologist recommended a double mastectomy, because, even though only one breast was affected by the cancer, there was a 30% chance of recurrence in the right side. “I thought it through on the way back from the appointment and told my mom that it wasn’t as bad as losing an arm or leg or something I really needed to function every day,” she says.”I made peace with it then and there and it was an easier decision knowing that I would have immediate reconstructive surgery.” Victoria attributes her survival to being positive and “getting selfish” with her life, instead of being a people-pleaser, which meant avoiding negative people, situations and conversations. “I have conquered so much and no longer fear all the small things in life. I have also learnt that my friends and family, especially my mom, truly are the amazing people I always suspected they were,” she says. “There is just so much love and support out there if you just open yourself up to receive it.” 


Author: Charlene Yared-West, Oprah Magazine, October 2010, p74. (Please note that the copy posted above is the unedited version of what was published in the magazine and will differ slightly. To read the edited version of the article, please click on the images for an expanded view.)

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