Lessons from cancer survivors

1 June 2020
5 minute read

Woman smiling at camera

In National Cancer Survivors’ Month, we chat to survivors about their cancer journeys and ask them to share the lessons they've learnt along the way.


Dread disease cover

Toni Younghusband, breast cancer survivorWhen did you suspect something was wrong? Just after New Year, 2018. I was lying on my tummy and I felt a pain in my right breast, high up where it swells from the chest. When I felt the area, I felt the lump. 

How did you get diagnosed?  I went for a mammogram and ultrasound and the radiologist asked that I go for a core biopsy. I took my results (on CD) and immediately arranged to see Dr Carol Ann Benn, well-known best breast cancer surgeon.

How did you respond? When I felt the lump at home, I just knew it was cancer and I burst into tears, then called my sisters and cried with them. But once I’d spoken to Carol I felt much stronger and able to cope.

What was the treatment? My cancer was in the early stages, so in March 2018 it was removed by lumpectomy. I had my breast reconstructed with what was left of my breast tissue. I also had the lymph glands removed from underneath my right arm. I needed only one session of radiation.

What have you learnt? Four things:

  1. Never, ever skip your mammogram and ultrasound.
  2. If you don’t have confidence in a doctor, find another one who makes you feel comfortable. It’s your body, not theirs.
  3. A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence, it’s a bump in the road of life and with the right travelling partners by your side, you’ll negotiate it just fine.
  4. Involve your family.  My husband was with me before and for the week after surgery, and my sister joined me for my follow-up consults.

Joshua Reynolds, colorectal cancer survivorWhen did you suspect something was wrong? I woke up one day while on a business trip in January 2019 with a fever and a sore coccyx. The pain continued for weeks and moved to my left testicle.

How did you get diagnosed? I saw my GP, urologist (twice) and a physiotherapist before being correctly diagnosed at hospital in April 2019. An MRI scan found a Stage 3 tumour just outside the ileo-anal pouch (a surgically constructed reservoir for waste, also called a J-pouch) that was created after I had a total colectomy (removal of the large intestine) due to congenital colon cancer, when I was 16.

How did you respond?  I was happy that the cause of the pain was found, and fighting cancer was not new to me. I was mainly concerned about my family and my new business.

What was the treatment?  In July last year I had an ileostomy (surgery to connect the small intestine to the abdominal wall, to move waste out of the body), so now I have an external bag for waste. Then I went for chemo and radiation to reduce the tumour.  In a second op, in March, I had the tumour removed along with the J-pouch. My doctor is confident that all the cancer was removed.

What have you learnt? It’s the people around you that get affected the most, yet they are the ones who get you through - the meals, the messages, the friend who offers his place to recover and get strong. Lean on the human spirit of kindness, and you’ll beat it.

Phil van Rensburg, chronic myeloid leukemia survivorWhen did you suspect something was wrong?  Soon after I returned to work in January 2019 I started to bruise all over my body and had difficulty breathing. I also lost 5kg.

How did you get diagnosed?  My wife insisted that I see our GP, who examined my body and vitals and immediately called for blood tests. When the tests came back, our GP told us I had Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML), a blood cell cancer, and referred me to a clinical haematologist.

How did you respond?  My wife and I were both stunned and lost for words. The most difficult part was telling our two sons that I had a terminal illness. As a family we were devastated.

What was the treatment? I went on pills to reduce my white blood cell count, and chemo tablets to control the chronic myeloid leukemia(CML). Unfortunately, there is no cure for CML, so I must take the medication for the rest of my life.

What have you learnt? That you should never take life for granted. And to always listen to your body, it will tell you that something is wrong. But the greatest lesson is to embrace and accept the love and care from your family. Without them I would never have survived.

Samantha Perry, cervical cancer survivorWhen did you suspect something was wrong? I didn't - I never knew a thing. I went to my gynae for my usual annual pap smear and check-up, and then I was called back to discuss the results.

How did you get diagnosed? I went back to the gynae and he did a cervical biopsy, then confirmed there were precancerous cells across two thirds of my cervix. 

How did you respond?  I went cold, and then white, I think. While it was 'precancerous', cervical cancer is incredibly aggressive and it’s a potential killer. If it’s caught early, though, it’s completely curable.

What was the treatment? I opted to have the tumour burnt out under general anaesthetic as a day patient. However, it came back, so then I had it cut out. I’ve now been clear for years. I go for annual check-ups.

Annual checkups and regular screening are essential

What have you learnt?  Annual checkups and regular screening are essential. Without the annual check-up my story could have been much worse.  Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HVP), so make sure your kids get the HPV vaccine before they start experimenting sexually.

OUTRO:  A cancer diagnosis is a shock - but it isn’t necessarily a death sentence, especially if it is diagnosed early. These cancer survivors attest to the importance of regular screening and check-ups. Act early and embrace the care and love of your family and friends, and you’ll have the best odds of beating it.

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