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Mother, daughter share their stories

They take nothing for granted. Nor do they allow life’s challenges, big or small, to get them down. And, they remain truly grateful for every single God-given day.

This is the outlook adopted by a Helderberg mother and daughter who have both survived cancer and are now journeying beyond the disease.

Norma Heesom and Ruth Melim are proud breast cancer awareness advocates and encourage women to educate themselves on the topic while inspiring with their unique story. Both were diagnosed with breast cancer six months apart and understand not only the battle with cancer, but have dealt with loss in their family, which has a history of the disease.

The month of October places the spotlight on breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among South African women. According to statistics from the National Health Laboratory, breast cancer affects one in 28 women, and the incidence is as high as one in eight in urban communities. But early screening and detection of the disease dramatically improves women’s chances of survival and reduces the need for aggressive and invasive treatment.

Heesom, a resident of Helderberg Village, reckons cancer has changed her life. Apart from sharing the life altering battle with her daughter, the 69-year-old lost an aunt to breast cancer 60 years ago, when not much was known about the disease. More recently, her 47-year-old niece was initially diagnosed with breast cancer which, in spite of a mastectomy and treatment, spread to the brain. Another niece now battles leukaemia, which was diagnosed at age 50, after being clear of breast cancer for five years.

Heesom testifies to the importance of regular mammograms and check-ups, which in her case led to relatively early detection of cancer of the left breast and nipple in August 2017.

She recalls being “devastated” by the diagnosis. “One always thinks this cannot happen to you, your daughter or even nieces, but alas . . .”

Heesom also recalled making it through a full mastectomy, opted for because of her family history, and treatment, which included lymph gland drainage. In all of this she had the unstinting support her husband of 25 years, Jeremy, children, and physio Mariette Conradie, coupled with her faith in God.

Melim, now 44, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2016.

This, after first being diagnosed with skin cancer and having a small mole removed by her general practitioner in August 2012.

In both instances the disease was detected as stage 1.

“I turned 40 and went for my first mammogram, which I nearly did not go for, as the procedure is expensive and my medical aid did not cover it,” she recalled, “and an abnormal cell was detected by sonar.

“When the gynaecologist broke the news to me I had 101 questions, which he just could not answer, which left me quite devastated. I had my son and now ex-husband waiting in the car, and when I broke the news to them we were all crying.

“It was only once I’d got back to the office that I got my oncologist on the phone, and his receptionist said, ‘Girl we’ve got you, don’t worry.’ After speaking to him I felt at ease, as my breast cancer was slow in growing and he assured me we had time.”

Like her mom and many others, Melim didn’t think this would be her reality – she had cancelled an insurance policy months before her diagnosis. She was fortunate to have detected her cancer early enough to avoid chemotherapy, and had a lumpectomy followed by 10-minute radiation sessions every day for a couple of months.

Melim’s motivation to continue fighting when days were dark was her teenage son, whom she is very proud of.

“My health is very important to me. I try to take care of my body, and as I have told so many one gets spare parts for vehicles, but do not for one’s body.

“I try to enjoy life as well. All that is part of life, from eating to living and loving, should have balance.”

She recently moved to Strand, where she says she is fortunate to wake up to the sound and sight of the beautiful sea. She is originally from Johannesburg, where she completed her schooling at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein.

Melim gave up her studies in Pretoria to move to the “wonderful” Cape in 1998.

She works as an accountant for a group of oncologists, who have also formed part of her support structure.

“The same oncologists I work for treated me. They were so kind and helpful and offered a lot of advice. One of the perks of being an employee is the counselling they offer one as well as one’s family. So the support was really great.”

Melim and Heesom both express feeling a renewed sense of gratitude for the joy and appreciation of life, counting their blessings and sharing more love and hugs.

They extended the following messages to women in the community: “Please, ladies – and I believe men too can get breast cancer – go for that annual check-up,” said Heesom.

Melim said: “Make an appointment to see the gynecologist. A woman must not delay, and if you need a friend to go with, ask.

“You may be scared, and this is normal, but face your fear head on, and if need be get your partner, your friend to hold your hand and go with you.

“Cancer is an expensive treatment, and financially and emotionally draining. There is support out there. It is just a question of asking. Don’t be afraid to live, and take care of your body.”

The Breast Imaging Society of South Africa (Bissa) urges women to self-examine regularly and have an annual mammogram from the age of 40.

“Breast cancer affects all ages, races and socio-economic circumstances,” says Bissa chairperson Professor Jackie Smilg.

“As frightening as a cancer diagnosis is, the good news is that modern medical advances and early screening and diagnosis result in more patients surviving and beating cancer with less aggressive and invasive treatment.

“The need for early and accurate detection simply cannot be over-emphasised.”

In women with a significant family history of breast cancer or special circumstances, mammography can also be followed by ultrasound or breast MRI in screening and symptomatic examinations.

All women should start regular mammography from the age of 40 and continue every year until age 70, regardless of whether they have symptoms or an abnormality.

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