Babalwa Ursula Malgas (38) had never done a breast self examination before, but on that day in October 2011 when she touched her breast and found a lump, she knew it wasn’t normal.
Not belonging to a medical scheme, Babalwa went to the Frere Public Hospital where she lives in East London for a check up, and a biopsy confirmed that she had breast cancer.
“I was standing in the passageway of the hospital right next to the doctor when he told the nurse: ‘Book her for a mastectomy – we have to remove the breast’ without even consulting with me first,” said Babalwa. “I felt betrayed, naked and insulted to find out that my breast will be removed like that.”
After that experience she pulled all her resources together to have the mastectomy done at a private facility.
“Growing up in a township, even as an educated woman, I didn’t know you could get cancer in the breast. I only knew of cancer of the womb and the throat and then it generally believed that either that person is promiscuous, or they are bewitched,” she says.
“Cancer is a taboo subject. People don’t just talk about it. In fact, only after my own diagnosis I found out that my aunt, who passed away a couple of years ago, died of lung cancer. We were told she died in an accident.”
These are the reasons most cancer cases in this country are only diagnosed at a very advanced stage – either people don’t realise they might have cancer when they develop a lump or get symptoms, or they keep quiet about it out of shame.
After her experience she decided to break the silence around cancer in her community and now makes it her mission to spread the news about cancer to everyone, especially the uneducated who live in rural areas and townships.
“There is still a lot of work to be done. Because even if people knew about cancer, accessing treatment is still very difficult for most,” she says.
Babalwa is now also involved with a support group in Mdantsane. “We have adopted a ward for male breast cancer patients at Cecelia Makawane hospital,” she explains. “We are helping them to accept their diagnosis, and to realise it is not a death sentence. They find it difficult to open up and share their fears and their feelings, but we are making progress, bit by bit.”
For Babalwa, the issue of stigma cuts through many levels. Cancer survivors don’t want to talk about their feelings or their symptoms because they are afraid of being perceived as victims. Family members don’t offer support, and intimate partners don’t find it easy to cope with the changes their loved ones are experiencing.
“We haven’t won the war against stigma yet, but we are making progress. People are beginning to realise that you don’t have to call someone names if they are sick. Awareness campaigns and the positive influence of support groups are really making a difference and changing people’s attitudes, even in the rural areas.”
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