It's hard to imagine that cervical cancer affected the lives of two sisters in the same year - and how differently. Alrita Groenewald, 41, was given less than 30% chance of survival, while her sister Tessa Supra, 46, chose to silently carry the burden of her subsequent diagnosis.
Alrita’s cervical cancer diagnosis comes just after giving birth
In January 2015, Alrita, then six months pregnant, complained to her gynaecologist of excruciating back pain. Prevented from taking strong medication by her pregnancy, she found herself hardly able to sleep and forced to work standing at her high-pressure marketing job to lessen the pain.
However, back home four days after her daughter Mila’s birth on April 17th, 2015, she collapsed in agony. Her husband Hennie rushed her to the nearby Life Wilgers Hospital. X-rays revealed a swollen kidney. Her gynaecologist advised she be transferred back to the Netcare Pretoria East Hospital where he and a urologist examined her, administering strong pain medication.
Alrita agreed to exploratory surgery and woke up to the news that a biopsy had revealed Stage 2B Cervical Cancer.
“I saw his mouth moving but I couldn’t take anything in, I was so shocked. They said the growth was aggressive and constricting my left kidney’s ureter. I thought, how can I be given the miracle of a new-born baby girl and then find myself on my way up to the Lord to keep him company? I asked the Lord to give me back my life,” she recalls.
Denial set in, followed by fear and uncertainty and lastly, determination to overcome with faith and positivity.
“Not only did the treatment ravage my body - if you don’t fight with all your might, cancer can wreak havoc with your mind, heart, and brain. All kinds of negative thoughts tend to take hold of you and you literally find yourself in a black hole,” says Alrita. Soon her mental battle with cancer turned her into recluse. Instead of her usual outgoing and jovial self, for four months she hardly spoke a word. Of the first few months of Mila’s life, she has no memory.
Cancer survival strategy openly shared with Alrita’s children
As a family, they discussed her cancer and the effect it might have on Alrita. The children received counselling. The couple sat down their older children, Gustav, 14, and Zara, 8, telling them they had upsetting news but that they should stay calm and ask any questions they wanted.
“Zara asked if I was going to die. I replied that as long as I drew breath we’d throw everything into the fight. We could only do it together if everybody spoke their mind. I told them we needed all the support we could get.” Zara got her school class to pray every day, her teacher later telling Alrita that her pupils learnt more about life from Zara in those lessons then most people do in a lifetime.
Further tests revealed that the initial Stage 2B diagnosis (the cancer having spread into the tissues next to the cervix), had progressed to a Stage 3B diagnosis (the cancer having grown into the walls of the pelvis and/or blocking one or both ureters, causing kidney problems).
Intensive, chemotherapy followed. Alrita believes that her husband’s initiating a 24-hour prayer group, together with the intense radiation and chemo therapy, turned the tide for her. “The Lord healed me. He blessed the right people to be efficient enough and to have the right wisdom to treat me in the correct manner so that I can talk about my cancer today,” she says. On July 21st, 2015, having skipped her final two radiation treatments through exhaustion, she received another set of results. The treatment was successful. She was cancer-free, but her left kidney had suffered irreparable damage and had to be removed. Despite this, today Alrita is fighting fit.
Alrita shares the life-lessons cancer survivorship brings
She bitterly regrets not consulting her gynaecologist more regularly before her last pregnancy. “I felt absolutely fine and experienced no discomfort or pain, so for nearly eight years I did not go for gynaecological examinations. For years I did not realise the importance of having a pap smear to detect cancerous cell growth. Today I know how vital it is that every single girl and boy should also have the Human Papilloma Virus, (HPV), vaccine. The same goes for adults,” says Alrita.
Discovery Health Medical Scheme supports Tessa’s silent cancer journey
Tessa Supra’s surgery on 20th August, 2015 – on her birthday and four months after her sister’s surgery - included a radical hysterectomy. The oncologist she shared with her sister Alrita, confidentially reassured her that her outlook was more positive than Alrita’s. Only her daughter, Beaudine, then 19, and husband Grant knew about what she was going through. She believes that had she shared her diagnosis more widely it would have proved too much for her mother.
“We decided we’d keep it quiet until the final lab results after the hysterectomy.” That took eight weeks. Her all-clear came one month after her sister’s.
“I absorbed a lot of anxiety - I couldn’t reach out the way my sister did. I hate being made a fuss of. I kept it quiet, mainly for Alrita and my mum - they had enough on their emotional plates,” Tessa says. Alrita sees Tessa’s silence quite differently. “I was surprised and disappointed when I heard – to have your family and friends unable to support you, is almost selfish. It’s a pity she did it that way, but it was her decision. Cancer doesn’t know age, gender, race or privacy – I think it could have been more healing for both of us, had I known.”
Tessa’s initial fear about the cost of cancer treatment soon receded when Discovery Health Medical Scheme, (DHMS), paid for her initial cone biopsy, no questions asked. “What impressed me most was getting a support call from Discovery while I was on their Oncology Programme. I was in tears when they told me there was a help line and a support line. Being fully funded was one less thing to worry about. It was seamless, they supported us with whatever we needed,” she says. On the Discovery Health Classic Saver Medical Plan, her hysterectomy and hospital stay were also fully funded.
The sisters are passionate advocates for regular pap smears
“My oncologist says it takes about 10 years for HPV to develop into cancer,” says Tessa. “You can have three or four pap smears in that time. If just one woman can go and see her doctor and be saved, then that’s the real story we want conveyed,” adds Alrita.
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