I am a cancer survivor – and thriver
Posted on 2 June 2023
Cape Town artist Tania Babb has been cancer-free for 18 months. She describes how her illness and treatment journey have made her reflect on the gift of life.
When well-known local ceramicist Tania Babb was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) in December 2020, the mother of two knew the road ahead would be challenging. But she has done more than survive – she has thrived.
In December 2020, after feeling a lump the size of an egg in my left breast, I went for a mammogram. This was followed by a biopsy and scan within the space of 45 minutes. When my GP phoned me with the results, I sat on the stoep, stared into the distance and had a little weep. I was trying to absorb the news and didn’t know yet what the full diagnosis and treatment plan would be.
Within a week I had an appointment with an oncologist, who delivered the shattering news in a way that I, as an artist, could understand – he drew a diagram of how cancer progresses. He also explained it was a 6cm-wide, stage 3 triple negative tumour. TNBC differs from other types of invasive breast cancer in that it tends to grow and spread faster, has fewer treatment options, and tends to have a worse prognosis.
Chemotherapy and surgery
I had to start chemotherapy almost immediately – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – which was a bizarre experience. Every second week for three months, I sat in a hospital armchair with my feet up from 8-11am, while a drip dolly fed what looked like raspberry juice into my veins. I’d fall asleep on the way home from each session, completely zoned out. My hair started falling out – flying off my head like candy floss.
When my hairdresser friend eventually shaved off what was left of my once-long blonde hair, it was a clear acknowledgement of where I was at. I didn’t have time to mourn the loss of my tresses – I had to make a swift identity change.
After my gruelling chemotherapy sessions and a lumpectomy, I was scheduled for 25 sessions of radiation every day for 20 minutes at a time, and was the first patient to experience the new Varian TrueBeam Linear Accelerator (LINAC) at Mediclinic Constantiaberg [LINAC can target tumours with greater accuracy and speed, reducing treatment times and minimising damage to surrounding healthy tissue]. The fact that treatment was so close to my home was a massive help. The convenience meant less disruption to my day, which made me feel less angry about everything.
Radiation involved lying on a special chair, surrounded by computers, while the radiologist tattooed me with blue ink to ensure the state-of-the-art equipment was targeting the correct areas. The LINAC is unbelievably precise – it has an exactitude of 0.5 of a millimetre – and in the early sessions I felt as if I was relaxing on the beach.
After a while, the little rash that marked the treatment area started to get really sore and after three weeks, my breast was too painful for me to wear a bra. However, once the skin started peeling off (much like sunburn) it felt much better.
My radiation treatment ended in August 2021 and once all my doctors had shared my scans and decided on treatment plans, I started on six three-week cycles of oral chemotherapy. While I suffered slight numbness in my fingers and toes, I thought it was a small price to pay for still being above ground.
Advice to other cancer patients
My advice to others who are diagnosed with cancer is to sit with the information for a bit before you tell people. Give yourself time to digest it, and to think about how you feel. Once you’ve put yourself in the “reality of everything”, consider how you plan to approach your journey, without the overlay of other peoples’ responses. And then, make a point of surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family – because they are everything. I felt very “held” throughout my experience by my medical team and my support network. I do feel incredibly grateful for that.
And while you’re only technically a cancer survivor after being cancer-free for five years, I choose not to dwell on it. I am very forward-thinking; I only think of the future and what I still want to do. Cancer is life-changing because it puts you in a different relationship with death and makes you re-evaluate your time on the planet – which is ultimately a good thing. I guess you could say it is actually a gift.
Mediclinic, in association with Icon Oncology as well as Cancercare SA, delivers seamless one-stop oncology services at a flagship treatment facility based at Mediclinic Constantiaberg in Cape Town. More facilities are in the pipeline so patients can get crucial treatment at the most appropriate and most affordable level. This includes day surgery clinics, primary care environments and procedures in doctors’ rooms. Mediclinic’s partnership with Icon makes it easier for patients to navigate a complex treatment journey, as all services are available under one roof.