’Set your mind to think positively,’ says breast cancer survivor

Donna Bender, 61, from Athlone, had a double mastectomy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time.

Donna Bender, from Athlone, urges cancer survivors to join support groups to help get their strength and confidence back after they’ve been diagnosed.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), breast cancer is one of the five most common types of cancer in women and men in the country. The others are cervical, colorectal, lung, and uterus cancer.

Ms Bender, 61, was 43 at the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2003.

After feeling discomfort and a lump in her left breast, she went to the Dr Abdurahman Community Health Clinic and was referred to Groote Schuur Hospital for a biopsy that confirmed she had breast cancer.

Later that month, she had a mastectomy of her left breast, followed by six sessions of chemotherapy. In November that year, doctors said she was in remission.

“The chemotherapy was horrible,” she says. “I gained so much weight, felt nauseous all the time, lost all of my hair and then I shaved it all off.”

Ms Bender was in remission for 18 years, then, in April this year, her cancer returned. She felt a strange feeling in her left breast, which doctors had filled with silicone during her 2003 mastectomy.

“I decided to have a double mastectomy because I didn’t want it coming back for a third time,” she says. “Doctors told me I needed to undergo chemo first, so I did and I got very sick. After my second session, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t get out bed and I couldn’t eat. I felt so weak all the time, so I decided not go for anymore chemo and asked doctors to perform the mastectomy straight away.”

She had her operation at Somerset Hospital on Tuesday September 21.

She was angry when she got her first cancer diagnosis, asking “why me?”. Denial followed, and then she started praying, and that led to acceptance, she says.

“My support system made it easier for me. My family and friends were so helpful, and that is why it is so important to have a good support system because there are days when you can’t get out of bed and you will need them.

“It is a difficult journey, and you must set your mind to think positively only. You must talk about your feelings and keep pushing yourself not to give up, to remain hopeful. I hope to join Reach for Recovery soon so that I can also help the next person,” she says, referring to the support group for cancer patients.

For more information about Reach for Recovery, contact Carla Lind at 083 306 1941.