Fighting cancer together

When Ukho Zita heard that her son had a brain tumour, cancer was the last thing on her mind.

“Brain. Tumour. I didn’t know the two are associated with cancer,” she said.

Dealing with the shock, privately crying, and crying, she was determined that her boy, Nhlakanipho ‘Nhlaka’, 10, would have the best medical care.

Projecting a positive attitude she had to leave her other son, Siphesihle, her job as an internal auditor and her home in East London to bring Nhlaka to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

A few days later, he underwent a six-hour operation to remove the large tumour.

That was December 19, and the prognosis was unknown – was the tumour benign or malignant? It turned out to be the latter: Nhlaka was going to need more treatment.

He was transferred to Groote Schuur Hospital for radiation treatment from Monday to Friday for six weeks. But where would they stay? How would they get to the hospital? And how could they afford it?

In stepped a medical social worker who told Ms Zita about Childhood Cancer Foundation (CHOC) South Africa.

It supports the specialist-treatment facilities in academic hospitals and has 12 accommodation facilities around the country, including Plumstead and Bergvliet.

“Everything has been taken care of since we were picked up at the airport,” said Ms Zita.

They have been at the Plumstead house for one week and Ms Zita has found it reassuring to be with other mothers in the same position who can support each other.

Ms Zita said Nhlaka had been diagnosed in August after staff at his boarding school had picked up on odd changes in his behaviour. “He was wobbly, clumsy, falling and his writing was different, there were little things like the way he held a spoon,” she said.

He went for occupational therapy but by the end of last year his condition had deteriorated, and he was in pain with headaches which ran down his spine. His grandmother thought he had meningitis, but a doctor diagnosed the brain tumour.

Next Wednesday February 15 is International Childhood Cancer Day (ICCD). This day was started as a global collaborative campaign to raise awareness about childhood cancer and show support for children with cancer, survivors and their families.

The childhood cancer survival rate in South Africa is very low: 52.1 percent, but in developed countries, it is between 70 percent and 80 percent and is mostly curable.

This low survival rate is better than other developing countries because children can be referred to paediatric oncology units at state-funded academic hospitals including Red Cross, Tygerberg and Groote Schuur.

CHOC is the only organisation in South Africa that provides free nationwide physical and psychosocial support to children with cancer and other life-threatening blood disorders – and their families.

The organisation mostly takes South African patients who live at least 50km from a treatment centre and cannot afford to travel to it.

CHOC is supported by volunteers who are a phone call away and can do a range of tasks from making a birthday cake to serving tea to patients and outpatients in hospital.