The Cell C #Playing4PinkSA Invitational Polo in association with Samsung on October, 4, 2015, at the Inanda Club in Johannesburg– will be a celebration of women who have survived a mastectomy.
October 4 promises to be a day filled with manners and manure; with glitz and glamour; with the women polo players being the backdrop for fashion in the sun, luxury shopping, champagne quaffing… And its all for a good cause: breast cancer.
Reach for Recovery is a non-profit organisation that helps women regain some of the self-esteem they’ve been deprived of by breast cancer. To raise funds for this worthy cause (tickets cost R650 and can be bought at Computicket), Cell C, Edith Unlimited and Samsung have joined forces to host a polo match in which the all-women teams will face off against each other in support of breast cancer.
Suzette van der Merwe, Executive Cell C Foundation says, “The Cell C Foundation has a strong focus on the empowerment of women in South Africa and this cause is one that allows Cell C to empower women by helping them through the process of recovery and discovery.”
Reach for Recovery spokesperson, Colleen Smith, srecalls seeing women on the worst day of their lives. She meets them in their hospital beds, in shock, having just had the symbol of womanhood– their breasts– removed. She meets them when they are coming to terms with having been told that they have cancer; she meets them when they are vulnerable and unsure and afraid. She meets them when they are asking themselves the big question: Am I going to die?
Colleen, a cancer survivor who’s been there herself, brings a ray of hope and relief into the lives of women who have had mastectomies – whether they’ve lost one breast, or both. She’s also a both a volunteer and chairman of the Gauteng South Johannesburg volunteer for Reach For Recovery, a non-profit organisation that is a breast cancer support group.
Reach for Recovery was started in 1952 in America when Terese Lasser, a mastectomy patient, realized that not enough was being done for those whose life had changed dramatically after breast cancer. She established Reach for Recovery in South Africa in 1967.
When I had my mastectomy– I had one breast removed– I realised how much women need someone to help them through the process of losing your breast. It’s life changing.
Colleen Smith | Gauteng South Johannesburg volunteer for Reach For Recovery
She chose not to have reconstructive surgery, a decision that needed help from someone who understood about prostheses– the silicone false breast that fits into a bra and is the same size, shape and weight as the woman’s own breast.
“As someone who has been through the process, and come out on the other side, I can honestly say that I go into the ward and find women shell shocked, confused and miserable – and when I leave, they are smiling. And the only reason is that as a RFR volunteer, I bring them a bag for the drain they’re going to have to carry around for awhile; a softie for stuffing into a bra until their reconstruction surgery, or until their prosthesis is fitted. I also take them information, and talk to them about diet and breast health.”
It’s very uplifting for them to see someone who has survived, who is looking so good, who is there for them to ask questions of.”
Reconstructive surgery is expensive, and often not an option for women not on medical aid. Reach for Recovery steps in and provides prostheses (that retail at R1000) to indigent women for a donation of R50/R75.
But, RFR workers have found that many women (mostly older) choose not to have invasive reconstructive surgery with silicone implants under the skin.
For these women, they have to be professionally fitted so that the silicone false breast matches the shape and size and weight of the women’s breasts.
“We spend much of our time fund raising to ensure that we can help women who can’t afford it. Breasts are such an important part of a woman’s sexual identity. We at RFR are there to help both practically and emotionally,” Colleen said, adding that she finds it comforting and rewarding to help women.
“I have met with the most wonderful women. It is a privilege to see them grow from strength to strength as they recover.”
RFR Volunteer Maggie’s story
Maggie du Plooy’s sister died of breast cancer in 1994 while she was receiving chemotherapy for her own breast cancer.
Just weeks before, 64-year-old Maggie– a volunteer at Reach for Recovery and treasurer of the West Rand chapter – had both breasts removed after malignant tumours were found in each of her breasts. The woman who now lives and works on the West Rand was living in Volksrust when she was diagnosed with cancer but operated on at a hospital in Pretoria.
It was there that she had her first encounter with RFR. A volunteer from the breast cancer support group visited her hours after her bilateral mastectomy as she lay, confused, sad and despairing in her hospital bed.
“Her visit gave me such comfort. But I had to go home to my small town where there was no support and it made me realise how crucial it is having someone who has walked this path before to help you.”
Maggie does not sugar coat the devastating consequences that the radical surgery has for women.
Women’s breasts are such an integral part of their sexual identity that losing them often has devastating results. I was 43, in a relationship with a man who, at first, was supportive. But after a while it got a bit too much for him. When you’ve just lost your breasts, intimacy is difficult. It had a significant effect on my body image. When I look back on it now, a lot of what I felt was in my head.
Maggie du Plooy | Volunteer at Reach for Recovery
The experts say it is not uncommon for women who have undergone surgery after breast cancer to experience difficulty with intimacy issues.
“I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t feel very sexy. And then, when I was finally ready to try and things got awkward and I couldn’t handle his not being supportive, I just walked away from it.” Maggie says that it’s why she enjoys helping women through the difficult times, “Women need to know to that there is hope, that things will get better.”
She runs a flower shop on the West Rand: “Florist shops are places where you come across great joy and happiness– weddings, births, anniversaries, and special occasions – but also great pain sorrow. For me, the shop is one way of connecting with women in need.”
For now, Maggie is cancer clear, but she worries about her 31-year-old daughter, “Women are being diagnosed with breast cancer at younger and younger ages. It’s a huge concern for a mother, especially since I lost my sister to cancer. I just pray that my daughter is spared the horror.”