Elin Losper from Mitchells Plain in the Western Cape is one of many recipients of surgery through Project Flamingo. It’s an NGO that works to give breast cancer patients timely treatment in an environment where waiting times in the public healthcare system are lengthy.
Losper discovered a lump in her right breast in 2018. And she acted quickly, going to Groote Schuur Hospital for a biopsy.
“I was told that the lump was not cancerous so I must come back in two years.”
Two years went by and as the set date for her consultation arrived, so did Covid-19. Her appointment and the healthcare she happened to need at the time, were pushed back.
“At the beginning of this year I realised that the lump was back and I was told to come back on 28 May. I was then diagnosed with breast cancer after three biopsies,” Losper says.
The day her life changed
On the day of 9 June 2021, Losper heard that she would get a mastectomy. “That is a memory that will live with me forever. I returned home with a scar.”
But unlike others who say that their world came to a standstill at the news, Losper took it as a confirmation of an earlier suspicion. “My initial reaction was not one of shock. I wasn’t surprised to hear it; I was expecting it to happen.
“On the other hand, my children and husband were terribly scared,” she says, “but one thing I can tell you is that they never left my side the entire journey.” Losper believes that having a support system is vital. Even something as little as a care pack she had received from Project Flamingo, had power.
A little package with great power
“At the hospital I was given a bag and told to go home and come back the following day,” Losper recalls about the night before being admitted for her surgery. That’s when everything sunk in.
“What [that little bag] signified in my life tormented me, and I couldn’t get away from it. I even told my daughter to look inside the bag because I didn’t have the courage to do so myself.”
“I was so emotional at the time that I told my daughter to take ‘that cancer bag’ away from me. I imagined at the time that it contained medications, but I was wrong,” Losper says.
“When my daughter opened it, inside was a toiletry bag with goodies and, of course, a chocolate,” she says with a smile. “The next day when I looked at the bag I saw the pink logo for Project Flamingo. I realised I wasn’t alone. I am not alone and I’m not the only breast cancer patient,” she says.
“It kept me going to realise that there’s a whole world outside of your comfort zone who cares about you and your wellbeing. It made me appreciate life more than ever.
“I was admitted to the hospital on Friday 27 August and my mastectomy was scheduled for 28 August. I realised that Saturday that, three months ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and three months later I don’t have a breast. But it does not make me sad; quite the opposite really,” Losper says.
Compassion for patients like her
Statistics from the National Cancer Registry (NCR) of 2017 show that breast, cervical, colorectal, uterine and lung cancer account for the top five cancers that affect women in South Africa.
Approximately 19,4 million women in South Africa who are 15 years or older live at risk to develop breast cancer, the most common cancer among women in the country.
And many of the women of Mzansi who do get diagnosed, are left either untreated, unsupported or overwhelmed. Dr Justus Apffelstaedt and Dr Fatima Husain recently wrote that patients are sadly dying from treatable and manageable diseases because those from poor communities are often being diagnosed too late, suffer poor access to healthcare services, wait too long for treatment or have a lack of knowledge and understanding of their condition and potential for treatment.
It is a similar reason for which Dr Liana Roodt, a general surgeon, started Project Flamingo, and for which NGOs invest in awareness campaigns.
Signs and symptoms
NGOs such as the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the Breast Health Foundation, Pink Drive and many more aim to educate the public about healthy living, the risk factors, signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and support.
The most common signs of breast cancer include a lump or a mass in the breast, usually painless and hard, but also swelling, skin irritations, breast pain, a nipple discharge other than breast milk, a lump in the underarm area and a thickened nipple or redness.
Thankful for the right care
Losper is thankful to Project Flamingo and their team for ensuring that patients receive the attention they need, and for making them feel special. “It is not just me. Everybody should know that they are not alone; there is a community of people who are willing to provide a helping hand when needed.”
Losper now has a check-up scheduled in the next three weeks. “My mood is fantastic right now.” As part of her, rehabilitation she was referred to a Reach for Recovery clinic where she was instructed to do some exercises a week after the operation. “I’m looking forward to just being obedient to what I’ve been told to do.”