Candice Fehrsen (Mrs SA Pageant Manager) shares her story:
When Mrs South Africa CEO, Joani Johnson made the decision to support The Cancer Association of South Africa as our official charity, I remember writing a press release, something along the lines of having chosen CANSA as cancer did not discriminate, even as I wrote the words, I never dreamed that cancer wouldn’t discriminate against me…
I am a health insurers dream. I lead a healthy lifestyle, as a woman who has decided to opt out of motherhood I had never been admitted to hospital, for anything. The only reason for going to such a place is to visit other people, and I am not quite adventurous enough to ever have suffered a sporting injury and I have great genes, no significant family history of anything noteworthy – my grandmother, who I loved, did die of cancer at the age of 77, but her ‘negligence’ in obtaining such a disease was regarded a product of old age and nothing to do with the integrity of our superior gene pool!
So the morning I felt a strange hard-ish lump in my left breast, my thoughts were, why am I feeling my breast anyway? I wasn’t officially examining my breast when I felt the lump, my hand just ‘found’ its way there, it felt a little odd, but I wasn’t particularly worried.
I confess to having lied about my self-examination habits to both my gyne and GP. When specifically asked if I did my breast examinations, my response would be a wide-eyed nod of my head and a mumble that I hoped would be translated as the affirmative.
After not a little encouragement from my husband I made an appointment to see my GP. I arrived, rather embarrassed, for the consultation, walking into the Dr’s surgery, I blurted out ‘my husband made me come’, after all, nobody likes a time waster and I was sure my being there was an over-reaction and it was important that she know I am not a paranoid neurotic.
My GP was wonderful, she spent some time describing the various lumps to me, the ones to worry about and the ones not to worry about. After our chat, I confidently declared that I had nothing to be concerned about. My lovely GP insisted she be the one to decide if further investigation would be necessary and after examining my breast, declared my lump ‘a little bit harder than I would like’, and insisted I make an appointment for a scan.
I shrugged, there was no need for such fuss, Gran did not have breast cancer and anyway my breasts were too small to warrant such concern. I would be away on business for the following 2 weeks and we could schedule something when I returned. However, she insisted we make the appointment before I left and so it was settled for Friday, two days’ time.
I arrived for my scan and filled out the forms, always so many forms. I then reported to the X-ray room. The technician looked perplexed and said I should be having a mammogram, a Doctor then appeared out of nowhere and told me my GP had changed her mind – she now wanted me to have a mammogram. I nodded, rescheduled for later that day and returned a few hours later.
While the mammogram was uncomfortable, it wasn’t as horrendous as some say, I was still feeling rather blasé. I am not sure the mammogram revealed anything, and I was back on the bed for a scan. The Dr asked if I had ever had any surgery on my breasts. I giggled a ‘no’, tempted to reply that ‘Yes, I was a AAA but am now a full A cup’.
I was asked where the lump was. I showed them and it was found on the scan. It was oval in shape and dark in colour. Next I knew they were taking a biopsy – not nice, not nice at all. I looked away – unfortunately looking away meant looking into the monitor where I could see the needle entering my body.
While I do not consider myself a hypochondriac – I am rather squeamish so I closed my eyes. I remember opening them to see the assistant peering at my sample and thinking to myself – can she see if it is cancer? To my dismay another sample had to be taken, this time from the assumed healthy tissue.
I won’t lie, I left the appointment rather rattled, my bravado dwindled by the biopsy.
I had not expected anything other than a friendly chat with my GP and now I had had a mammogram, a scan and a biopsy. The biopsy hurt! I was uncomfortable and I was much more upset than I felt a rational human being should be, from now on I would be much nicer to anyone having biopsies.
My GP phoned after the appointment, she said that she couldn’t stop thinking about me and that was why she had changed the appointment to a mammogram, and kindly told me she was now ‘worried’ and promised to chase the lab down for my results on the Monday morning. It seemed impossible that her fears were founded and so I decided to ignore them for the weekend.
I was not quite as brave as I hoped I would be – a colleague was unfortunate enough to call at that moment and I shared my panicked fears, we reassured each other that this was all a precaution and that I was over-reacting. I apologised for being such a drama queen and conceded that if it was anyone else behaving so irrationally I would be rolling my eyes. I did make it clear that in future I would be very nice to anyone having a biopsy – they weren’t nice.
So the weekend went – I did confide in another friend, someone with a little more experience in this area than myself, there was some ‘eye-leakage’ and I again promised to be much more sympathetic to other people’s fears in future.
Monday came and a phone call – this time from the Dr’s receptionist asking me to come in as soon as possible. I reassured my husband that he needn’t come – I think we both had this irrational idea that by not going together we could force the news to be good.
But it wasn’t good news, breast cancer was confirmed, my GP phoned Tim, my husband, to ask him to come to the surgery, where she explained and updated us. She had made an appointment with the surgeon the next morning! I would in all likelihood keep my breast and my hair – but there would be an operation, radiation and possibly chemotherapy.
I remember coming home and telling Tim that I wasn’t going to phone my parents until after I had seen the surgeon. Tim, ever the sensible one, insisted that they would need to know and that it would make no difference to them when they found out. I remember us sitting on the couch together holding hands while I called. Dad answered the phone, delighted to hear from his ‘Cuddles’. I asked him to put mom on the phone as I had news they needed to hear together.
Unfortunately I did not elegantly deliver my news. I broke down and tearfully told them ‘I have cancer’. I then went on to apologise like a naughty child. I remember deep intakes of breath, mom asking ‘where’ and my hysterically giggling – ‘breast cancer’. Her saying ‘no, no, no, it can’t be’ me going, it is so.
Telling mom and dad was my most emotional moment, but it gave me such relief. They knew. I had their love support and prayers and I felt better, probably better than they felt. With my permission it was agreed that we wouldn’t keep my condition quiet, and that while I didn’t want it on Facebook or announced from the pulpit, I did not expect it to be kept a secret. Within the hour my brothers had called, my mom’s best friend was on the WhatsApp pledging her love, support and prayers. Tim phoned his parents to tell them, and as we told people the burden lifted.
Tim and I started to refer to my cancer as our lump in the road.
The next morning we saw the surgeon, and a date was set for two weeks’ time. The prognosis was good, very early detection and teeny, tiny lump.
I set up a coffee date and invited my close friends and told them my news all at once. They have without exception been the most fabulous support to me, they have provided food and gifts, love, support and prayer.
My surgery was successful and the lump was entirely removed, there were some funny (depending on your perspective) ‘coming out of anaesthetic’ moments…
Apparently I was howling like a banshee in pain – while Tim is still traumatised by this I have no recollection.
I also don’t recall ‘ordering’ and devouring salmon sashimi and strawberries and cream for lunch – this was apparently not wasted on me, as afterwards I was allowed pain killers, which apparently I needed.
Unfortunately further tests results showed a grade 3 tumour, HER2+.
After a special test in California, of all places, a very high possibility of a distant recurrence and so, on my oncologists advice I started chemotherapy on the 13 October 2015.
On the 3rd November Tim shaved my head, it was hard of course. But there are advantages to having no hair. I get an entire wardrobe just for my head!
Everybody likes your photo on Facebook, and I get to save lots of money on the ‘Christmas Colour’ and Summer waxes.
Not to mention the comparisons to GI Jane (and I didn’t even have to work out), Sinaed O’Conner and Charlize Theron (Mad Max).
Even from where I am now in the process, I am so grateful!
Early detection and teeny tiny lump means that I have an excellent prognosis and I have a very high probability of best case scenario, as in all likelihood I won’t have a recurrence and any danger of that will halted forever, as a result of my treatment.
So my message?
- If you feel any sort of lump whatsoever in your breast – GO TO THE DOCTOR. I feel so blessed to have caught my cancer early. My experience has been edifying. I can beat cancer! I caught it early and dealt with it. Teeny tiny lumps result in victory!
- Only go to Doctors you trust. Make the decision before you go to trust your doctor and to do as they suggest.
- Stay off the internet. To this day we have not looked up anything on the internet, we rely solely on what the doctors have told us and we have tremendous peace that they know what is best.
- Tell your friends and the people you love. I promise you will feel better than they do. A burden is lifted when you share your story, your friends will want to support you – so let them! I found that by sharing I focussed on myself for that moment and then I was able to cast my thoughts away to other things.
- Life goes on. Allow yourself to carry on as normal and focus on the positive.
To my husband Tim, my mom and dad, brothers, family and friends, your love and support over this time has been more than I could ever have expected of you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.