Turning a negative into a positive

Nicolette Coetzee, 52, from Hazendal.

When Nicolette Coetzee, 52, told her mother she had been diagnosed with stage-two gastric cancer, her mother packed a bag for her and promised to look after her children.

But nine years later she is still going strong – and involved in uplifting her community through the volunteer work she does.

It started with stomach cramps on a Sunday evening in November 2008. At Dr Aburahman Day Hospital in Kewtown, Ms Coetzee was prescribed a painkiller and sent home. But when the pain persisted the following day, she was taken to Hanover Park day hospital where doctors diagnosed a stomach bug. When the pain became worse, however, she returned to Dr Abdurahman day hospital from where she was referred to Groote Schuur Hospital.

There Ms Coetzee underwent a scope during which doctors detected what looked like a large white patch in her stomach.

After a biopsy, Ms Coetzee was asked to come and see the doctor as soon as possible – with a family member.

“I got there and he sat me down and said that I have stage two cancer,” she recalls.

“He said he wants me to meet with the team of doctors and go to the ward and familiarise myself with the sister and the carer who would take care of me in high care, as well the social workers and support group.”

All she could think of at the time, was that she needed to go home to fetch clothes.

Meanwhile the doctor quizzed her about her family history. Her mom’s sister had had a mastectomy due to breast cancer, she told him.

Then, says Ms Coetzee: “I went home and told my mother.

“She started crying. I asked her to look after my three children. She told me that she would look after them and packed a bag of clothes for me.”

At the time they had also been trying to contact Ms Coetzee’s husband who works at sea. Initially his boat had been out of range, but when they reached him and he called his wife, the message was simple: come home.

“He asked me what is wrong and I said I can’t tell him over the telephone. He just needs to come home,” Ms Coetzee recalls.

“Two days later, he came home.” The following day, the mother of three was taken into theatre where doctors operated for seven hours. From there, she recovered in the intensive care unit until she was well enough to be taken to the general ward.

She was weak – too weak to eat on her own – and received sustenance through a feeding tube.

On the third day after her operation, however, Ms Coetzee, no longer wanted to be weak and helpless and told the nurses that she wanted to get up and go to the toilet.

“They said I couldn’t get up, but I told them I wanted to. My sister-in-law was the main sister in the theatre so she wasn’t allowed to assist in the theatre. She told me to give her my rosary and go in in faith, so my journey was good,” she said.

The Hazendal resident was discharged from hospital a day before Christmas which she spent with family.

Before that, however, she had gone for her first round of radiation – and chemotherapy.

While she lost a lot of weight, she says, “I never had loss of hair like other people do.”

But, she adds, “On the third day I cried the whole day and didn’t want to see people around me, that was the effect it had on me.”

It was shortly after that that Ms Coetzee became involved in the community, working as a volunteer at Athlone High School.

In 2014, however, tragedy struck. Her son was murdered, and she took her break from her community work. But the break was short-lived, and, two years ago, she started volunteering at Athlone police station as a trauma counsellor.

The reason she does voluntary work, she says, is because there are many people grappling with all kinds of problems, but without the skills to handle them.

Ms Coetzee is also part of the Women’s Circle, which gets together every Wednesday. Senior residents attend the gathering where they are addressed by different groups about various topics and do arts and crafts.

“People should never think about the negativity of cancer but focus on the positivity. My journey was good. My motivation was my daughter who was still young and needed me,” she said.