Cancer survivor gives up, then beats the odds

Cynthia Rawcliffe, 47, from Belgravia.

Thyroid cancers occur about three times more often in women than in men.

Cynthia Rawcliffe, 47, from Belgravia, became part of this statistic when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014. She has been on treatment since, and on June 22, she will be going for another scan to find out if she is cancer free.

Cancer Survivors Week is celebrated from June 1 to June 7 every year.

Ms Rawcliffe realised something was wrong one evening in March when she struggled to breathe and was forced to put her head out of the window for air.

She managed to call the emergency services, who arrived 10 minutes later and took her to Hanover Park Clinic, where doctors put her on a nebuliser for five hours, but her condition did not improve.

The following Monday, at 5am, she was rushed to the trauma unit at Groote Schuur Hospital, where she went for various brain scans and lung tests.

She was diagnosed with a lung infection.

Ms Rawcliffe was then seen to by the ear, nose, and throat specialist, who confirmed that everything was fine. Her results, however, came back saying that she had failed her lung test.

“The next day, doctors kept poking my throat and said that something didn’t feel right. One of the surgeons then decided to take me to the ICU, but no one told me what was wrong. They monitored me every two hours and kept waking me up to see if I am alive,” said Ms Rawcliffe.

Doctors discovered that Ms Rawcliffe had a tumour growing in her throat, which was partially blocking her windpipe.

Every time she walked fast, the tumour would close up and block her windpipe. Doctors told Ms Rawcliffe that, had it been one more night, the tumour would have completely blocked her windpipe.

On Wednesday March 18, she went for her first operation to cut a piece of the tumour away and send it for tests. She was then given a letter to go back for her test results on April 2.

“The doctor said to me, ‘You’ve got cancer. Your results are here, and you need to go to the receptionist and make an appointment for treatment.’ He was very cold. He had no sympathy for me. I started crying because I could not believe I had cancer,” Ms Rawcliffe said.

She then received an appointment for April 30. Ms Rawcliffe told how she had walked from the E floor and lost consciousness along the way. She sat on the pavement at the bus stop, but couldn’t remember how she got there.

“I started crying. My sister called me. I told her I’ve got cancer, and I don’t care about anything anymore.

“My brother-in-law then fetched me and took me home. For two days, I just cried and cried, trying to figure out how to tell my daughter. I wasn’t going to see her get married, see her children, nothing.

“I finally managed to call her to the lounge and told her to sit down. I said that I’ve got cancer, and she said, ‘Is that all? Where’s your faith? Is that all you’ve got? Is that why you’re angry?’”

On April 30, Ms Rawcliffe was set to meet with her doctor for the first time. She entered the waiting room and remembered a woman saying “I had mine removed.”

She looked up on the wall and saw “breast cancer”. “I thought, ‘Did the cancer spread from my throat to my breast?’ I didn’t know that my doctor specialised in the treatment of both thyroid and breast cancer.”

At the doctor’s surgery, she saw the tumour opening and closing on the monitor. The doctor asked her what she understood about her condition and she thought, “How irrelevant. I’m going to die.”

He then told her that if she did exactly what he told her to do, he might be able to cure her disease.

“I started crying all over again. I came home and told my family, who were very happy to hear that I am going for treatment. My daughter and I went to the hairdresser and had our hair cut, which made me feel better,” she said.

On May 21, she was scheduled for an operation to remove a piece of the tumour which blocked her windpipe. Doctors then discovered that it had moved to her vocal cords and booked her for radiation treatment. For five days, she was in isolation in order not to infect other patients due to the high level of radiation therapy.

She was told to drink lots of water and take hot showers, which would make her sweat, to release the radiation from her body.

Her radiation level had to drop from 750 to 25 or less before she could go home. She was sent home after a week and went for regular check- ups until August, when she underwent further treatment.

In January last year, doctors discovered that the tumour was still there. It had shrunk, but not much. She underwent further radiation treatment.

Doctors changed her diet. She wasn’t allowed to eat dairy, fish and take any medication.

Later that year, in November, she was booked for another treatment. However, doctors discovered that the tumour was gone. Ms Rawcliffe was sent for more treatment just to be sure.

On June 22, Ms Rawcliffe will find out if she is cancer free.

“I am grateful for this journey. It has made me stronger. People ask me how I am feeling, and I realise they are talking about my cancer. There are days when I feel down and days when I have lots of energy. I’ve had no pain, and my hair hasn’t fallen out. In fact, it grows so quickly that I cut it two to three times a year. My teeth, however, have been falling out. I’ve had three teeth removed so far because of the holes in them,” she said.

Ms Rawcliffe has been volunteering at the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) since August last year.

“I never had support groups or friends during my journey. I don’t want people to go through it alone.

“I feel anxious and nervous about my upcoming appointment, but my throat is much better, and I feel much stronger.”

For more infomation about Cansa and the support services they offer, contact the Cansa Cape Metro office on 021 689 5347.