From Strength to Strength: Survivor Stories

In keeping with our powerful visual storytelling theme (which we’ll unveil tomorrow!) for Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2016, have a look at our stunningly successful vlog (video + blog = blog) series from last year’s October: Walk With Me — a collection of interviews-cum-stories as told by South African breast cancer survivors themselves!

Subscribe to the Youtube channel HERE!

Videos of interviews with South African breast cancer survivors - ABC: Advocates For Breast Cancer


Spreading feathers of hope

“How wonderful that no one needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”    Anne Frank slider-2  

Project Flamingo, like many good things in life, started around a good bottle of wine and a desperate email that landed in the right inbox. When faced with the heartbreaking, stretched out and often chaotic journey of a breast cancer patient in the public health sector, I decided that something needed to be done. Not only were these women subjected to agonisingly long waiting times for surgery, they were also mostly left isolated in their struggle with a daunting diagnosis. And as good stories go, a rich mixture of passionate people serendipitously collided, when a group of paddling breast cancer survivors reached out to this young doctor who desperately wanted to change the journey of breast cancer patients in Cape Town’s public health sector.

The simple yet profoundly effective idea of “Catch-up Surgeries” and “Pamper packs” was born. When the AmaBele Belles Dragonboat Racing Team pledged the first donation to the project on a radio interview, it was fate. Joining forces, the amaBele Belles’ Project Flamingo has subsequently grown so fast that literally hundreds of women have been touched by the project since its launch in 2010.

We started small but always dreamed big – from visiting patients with our pamper packs to reminding them of their feminine spirit that no surgery can take away, to raising funds for our “Catch–up Surgeries” at Groote Schuur Hospital – reducing the waiting time for a lifesaving mastectomy from three months to a mere two weeks and now also changing the lives of those diagnosed with colorectal cancer with our “catch-ups”. This is the short story of how the Flamingo spreading Feathers of Hope took flight.

The Wine Club That Gave PROJECT FLAMINGO Wings


It really is thanks to the support and endless energy of seven phenomenal women (who we are lucky to call ‘friends’) that Project Flamingo took flight in 2010!

As far as wine clubs goes, ours had all the necessary ingredients for a fabulous time: great food, great wine and seven very opinionated professional women. We also had, as it turned out, a sizable measure of heart! Following a particularly heartbreaking week, struggling to get my patients the appropriate treatment at the right time in the public health care sector, I spilled my proverbial guts over a glass of spectacular Chardonnay. I barely voiced the idea of pamper packs and catch-up surgeries and these girls jumped on their phones, fingers flying over their hurriedly opened laptops to make things happen: from organising flamboyant fundraising cocktail parties to shamelessly recruiting their friends and families to the cause, with heartfelt pledges for contributions. My passion was contagious, obviously! It was one of them actually who serendipitously sent my email pledge to the amaBele Belles – an impulse email that has had an enormous ripple effect. I can never thank them enough…

slider-4Project Flamingo stands for many things – but the one thing that has become our foundation is the rediscovery of community: our connectedness. Profound things happen we loosen our boundaries and allow ourselves to think: perhaps I can make a difference, perhaps there is a way in which I can contribute. In the words of Rumi: “Give up the drop and become the ocean.”

Whenever people tell me that they ‘wish they knew how to help’ my answer is this: when a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer at least a few of the following things happen:

  1. A woman is faced with a devastating diagnosis
  2. A husband/ partner is faced with a new frightening and confusing reality
  3. Food still needs to be cooked
  4. Children still need to get to school
  5. Patients still have to work, fit in surgery and prolonged treatment and keep their personal lives together

Now look at those five very simple statements and tell me you honestly cannot come up with a single way in which you could help?

On a lighter note, for those who wonder where the name Project Flamingo comes from, here is a confession: it just really sounded like the name of an uber-cool cocktail during one of our wine club get-togethers!


It was while reading this account of a certain Colonel Gonin’s stay at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War Two that the idea of pamper packs was born. The story touched me deeply and I was reminded that sometimes it is the small things we do that make a big difference. That we should never do nothing because a problem seems overwhelmingly big and our ability to contribute seems overwhelmingly small.

“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nighty but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the postmortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

So sometimes the difference between heaven and hell may be a bit of lipstick. Sometimes the difference between losing and finding your feminine soul may be a bottle of nail polish or hand cream. Sometimes it is not that difficult at all to change someone’s life.

So this is what we do: Pamper packs for all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients at the Groote Schuur Hospital Combined Breast Clinic. Every Wednesday a panel of expert clinicians, including surgeons, oncologists, pathologists and radiologists meet with approximately 20 newly diagnosed patients to discuss their diagnosis and treatment plan. This is a life-changing and traumatic afternoon for these women – and our pamper packs is an attempt to keep their feminine spirit alive. These pamper packs contain some bathroom essentials, lip ice, nail polish and a snack as well as educational material on breast cancer that they can bring along to hospital when they come back for their surgeries. The idea of the Pamper pack has truly taken off – and has become a token of hope, so much so that we hope to soon be able to distribute these packs to all women diagnosed with any form of cancer.

What on earth is a ‘catch-up’ list?

Timely surgery for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients is of the utmost importance. Surgery is often, although not always, the first step in a long process of treatment, before chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A delay is surgery therefore dominoes into a delay of the entire treatment process. Tremendous strain on theatre and staff resources have led to a waiting time of up to 10 weeks for surgery in 2010. (Those who think this is an uniquely African problem, read up on the tremendous waiting times in the UK’s NHS). Blaming, shaming and protesting does not solve the problem. But raising funds and paying for additional theatre lists does! Enter Project Flamingo’s “catch-up” lists where we pay for additional theatre time and nursing staff and volunteer anaesthetists and surgeons who get the surgery done. Although our main focus has always been breast cancer surgery, we now sponsor similar lists for colorectal cancer surgery. The waiting time for surgery is down from 10 weeks to 2-3 weeks and we could not be happier.

So here is the gist: we take note of the lessons the big C has taught us. We embrace the idea that we have the responsibility and capacity to make a difference. Importantly, we know that you, whoever you are, CAN TOO.

Breasts don’t make the woman

Another great video from the ‘What’s Underneath Project’, this time from breast cancer warrior, Gail Chovan.

There may be a couple of words that would offend some of our readers, but we think that what she has to say is more important than a few harsh words.

This is what courage looks like

Warning: some of the language is a little explicit, but we think the video is well worth watching.

Breast Cancer Survivor Story: A Friend’s Perspective

My name is Lisa, and I am very proud and blessed to be one of the bloggers in ABC’s advocacy campaign. Today we are meant to be sharing another breast cancer survivor’s story but my special friend who was going to send me her story for publishing today is so immersed in pre-wedding organising chaos that sending me her story must’ve slipped her mind! 🙂

In lieu of that, I thought I would tell you her story from my perspective, as her friend, with the hopes that you will find some value in it. (My recall of some of the important details are unfortunately a bit sketchy because I was living overseas at the time and was only receiving snippets of information via my mom.)

Leila is, through and through, one of the most shiningly beautiful souls I have ever been blessed to know. She is an artist with a special talent for making life beautiful – whether it is a feast of a braai, how she wraps a birthday present or even a ‘how are you’ Whatsapp. She also has an uncanny knack for bringing out the best in others with her gentle heart – yet which emanates a deep-rooted strength I know, while she always was a strong person, was deepened by two parallel situations she fought back against with grace and tenacity: breast cancer and an abusively damaging ‘love’ relationship.

advocates for breast cancer_weddingShe tackled both situations with an attention to beauty, staying creative, as well as a prosaic practicality which, I believe, was what gave her a map to follow when her physical and emotional energy were at their lowest. She got to the top of her ‘insurmountable’ mountain one step at a time, one day at a time. Sometimes she walked alone – which is inevitable when one faces situations which frighten friends and family away. Sometimes she had others of us walk beside her. I don’t know if Leila would have said the same about how having a practical plan with strategic, one-step-at-a-time goals was one of her cancer management tools, but from a friend’s perspective, this is one of the things I learnt from her which helped me turn my own personal tabooed ‘tragedy’ into more of a ‘situation I lived through’ and came out on the other side of stronger, wiser and more compassionate – with both myself, my child, family, friends and strangers.

Thank you, precious friend, for being such a magnificent inspiration and powerhouse of humble, warrioress strength! You are LOVED, cherished and celebrated! May your wedding and marriage be all the blessing you deserve!


Anthea’s story

IMG-20150121-WA0004My story began when I went to the gynaecologist for a scan to see my baby. What happened was that I got much more than a scan: the doctor did a head to toe examination. He found a lump in my breast and he sent me to a surgeon for a biopsy the following day.

My happiness changed to sadness because the doctor told me I had cancer.

I had a lot of questions that only God could answer. I woke up at 3am the Saturday morning with a song, God is the alpha and the omega and God can do anything and then I cried nonstop for an hour.

I took the Bible and opened it on Job, and read where Job’s wife asked him why he doesn’t curse God for letting bad things happen to him. Job replied “why do you just want to accept good from God and not the bad?” I got my strength from those words.

The next step was a visit to an oncologist. He did a lot of tests to see if I was strong enough for treatment. He said that if not, they would have to abort the baby. In the year 2008 I was the 27th women who was pregnant and had cancer. I was lucky, I could have treatment because I was strong. God was so good to me. I never got sick, no side effects except for losing my hair. I accepted it and decided to beat cancer.

I received four chemotherapy sessions and on 23 July 2008 I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The next day she was sent home and I went to the surgical ward for my mastectomy. That morning, as I was preparing myself for surgery, I looked at myself in the mirror and I started to cry. That was when it really hit me – this would be my last moments as a perfect woman. I was scared but God was so good to me.

I did not receive any blood. Even the doctors were amazed and said it was a miracle after I lost so much blood. I went home a few days later and I looked after my own baby with a lot of assistance from family and friends.

I had four more chemo sessions and radiation after that.

Now, six years later, I have dedicated my life to teach women how to do breast self examinations, and to awareness, support groups, counselling. I know my volunteer work could change lives. Women need to know what to look for. They must make time for themselves to check their breasts once a month and to go for a mammogram once a year.

 Anthea Martin

Would you like to share your story? it can be written, it can be a voice clip, it can be a video: we can make it happen! Please contact



Louisa’s story

Louisa Mthembu pleads for people to have regular checkups

Moipone’s story

Moipone Sebiya shares her journey with breast cancer and encourages young women to remember that a diagnisis is not a death sentence

My story: Pearl Makhalemele

Pearl Makhalemele shares her journey with cancer


A poem for mommy


My mother as a little girl
Ok “My mother as a young girl. I love the feel of the slightly delapidated backyard, with the vegetable patch which is struggling to grow in the dry ground. And her choice of dolls.”

Elsibe Loubser McGuffog’s mother, Suzanne, first became ill in the 1980s, when Elsibe was in high school.  The diagnosis was breast cancer. The cancer spread to her bones. When Elsibe was 23, her mother died at home, after spending long periods at Groote Schuur Hospital and at the Hospice. She was just 63.

Because Elsibe was away from home, studying at Stellenbosch, her mother would write to her often.

As Elsibe says: “Her letters always had studying or career advice, along with news, and then a few lines in which she would share her emotions or ask for a visit. It’s very painful to read those letters because it’s clear how much she had to carry and how bravely she did that.”

This is Elsibe’s tribute:

After your death, I looked for other women to replace you. And because you had suffered so, I chose women who were strong, women who refused to suffer, ambitious women who could not say the word ‘sorry’. Unrepentant women.

But loving them did not bring you back, mommy.

It did bring back this memory: jealousy is never the cure.

Even though jealousy is survival and has its place.

Even though jealousy is territorial.

What else is it? Please tell me mommy. I need to run from it.

You were never territorial, never jealous, not of my time or my skills or my company or my possessions. You tried in your last weeks to enter my heart playfully; you must have seen the pain.

In the letter you wrote to me, you wrote about the beautiful young doctor. And between the lines I wondered whether you were asking me how one should flirt, not with the doctor but with life. The other doctor was called Doctor Dracula, because he took your blood.

One would think it misplaced, at a time like that, a time of death. But in your way you were saying – life is fleeting. Don’t expect anyone to stick around though.

Somewhere in a ward you thought of sending me a letter and a newspaper clipping so that I could secure a job. And between the lines there was beauty. There was beauty and a plea.

And then you came home and lay in that cool crying bed and slipped away like a gecko around the corner of the house and over a rock and into the shrubbery. Geckos have no homes except in the inner sanctuary of other people.

You were always full of the vigour of life, so fine almost fragile, at home everywhere and nowhere, so sensitive you could have lost your tail at the slightest criticism, sticking to the roof of my memory, as words slip off my tongue and down the walls of our shared genetic pool. Oh mommy, how do I make words stick?