Living life to the full after breast cancer

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When journalist Kathy Malherbe was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40, her biggest fear was leaving her two young sons behind. Justin was 8 and Philip was 11. “I made a pact with whoever was listening to please just let me see them matriculate … I sometimes think now I should have asked for longer, as in the year my youngest went into matric, I received my second diagnosis,” she says wryly.

“Nothing prepares you for the news that you have breast cancer. It’s devastating. In that moment you change and everything in your life changes with it. The first time around was more fear, fear of the unknown. The second diagnosis, the fear was still there, but it was different. I knew what I’d been through. I also knew I’d made it one and I could do it again. ”

I found the lump the first time just before Christmas in 2000 and went in for surgery soon afterwards. While they were operating they found four more tumours. It took me a long time to recover. The process was around two years with major surgery, and radiation spread out through the period. On top of that, the medication didn’t agree with me, which just made it a daily struggle.

But I got through it by focussing on the time I had with my children. I ran my own business as a freelance journalist so I was able to be more flexible, and savour every minute I could with my children. I attended every cricket match, every swimming gala, every teacher-parent conference, often working late in the night to meet my work deadlines while they were asleep. This went on for many years but it was worth it. I now have this rich tapestry of memories of their childhood that I might not have had if I hadn’t been given a reason to appreciate what was really important. In some ways, my diagnosis was a gift because you never look at life the say way again, you are grateful for every single day you have.

Still, I became a bit introverted as a result, so when I was diagnosed for the second time I decided after surgery to give back where I could because I knew just how lucky I was to have the support network and life I had. I had a car, a flexible job, and friends who would cook us meals and sit with me while I was undergoing treatment – many people aren’t as lucky. Many don’t have their own transport and have to endure taxi rides after treatment, while going back to work without so much as a friendly hand to hold in the process. I decided to do the Journey of Hope motorcycle ride which is a ride across the country to raise awareness by breast cancer survivors in many off the track areas on the importance of early detection for breast cancer – something that saved my life, not once but twice. The importance of self-examination and early detection are very close to my heart. Both times I felt a lump and made sure I went for a test to be sure what it was.

My doctor’s well-meaning guess work was that as I was only 40 it was likely to be a cyst. I didn’t have the luxury of trusting guesses and neither do you. As it turned out, it wasn’t a cyst and if I hadn’t insisted on proper testing it may have been too late. Sure it’s scary, and who doesn’t want to believe that it’s just a cyst? But you have to know for sure, it’s the only way. Catching it early can mean survival in 95% of cases. Trust me on this.

To do the Journey of Hope ride, I had to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The first lesson I ever had was on a Harley Davidson and within the first few minutes I was pinned under it. I thought – I can’t do this. I was feeling hopeless and tearful, but a fellow rider and friend said to me that learning to ride was nothing compared to what I had already been through. This steeled me, and, despite the gravel, I vowed no motorcycle would get the better of me.

After a lot of practice I rode 1 700km with a team of inspiring and incredible people who all spread the same message of hope. I did it again the following year too – nothing is quite as fun as riding a motorcycle for an adrenalin junkie like me. In the second Journey of Hope ride I became the spokesperson, and that was an incredible experience.

After my first and second diagnoses I developed a living list – things to do while I am still fortunate to be here. This included piano lessons which I’m not particularly great at, and my teacher once offered to give me my money back, but I’m having fun with it which is the important thing. I also learnt to ski and now take a skiing holiday every year with my children – I make a point of saving for it especially. Scuba diving has been on the list for a while which I’m really only trying later this year, I can’t wait! I’m going to Sodwana Bay for it.

It also changed my career. I moved from PR to journalism which is my true passion and now specialise as a medical and health writer. It’s wonderful to do what you love everyday.

Today Philip is an officer on a luxury motor yacht in Malta and Justin has just graduated with a Chemical Engineering honours degree.  I am so lucky to have watched them grow into wonderful young men and they remain my inspiration.

After surviving breast cancer twice, I know how lucky I am to be here, and I never take it for granted. It’s made me grab life with both hands and make the most of every opportunity that comes my way. If there’s one lesson I can help others with aside from the vital importance of early detection and self-examination, I hope it’s this: you only get one life, make sure you really live it while you can.”

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