For many families, getting that earth-shattering diagnosis is only the beginning of an upheaval that could either make or break the recovery process.
It happened three years ago to Lebang Kgosana, a radio DJ and a then student, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
At the age of 53 in 2014, Mapule (her mother) had already been in a car accident in 2009 that left her immobile in a wheelchair.
But for Lebang, aged 27, with her business in its infancy and a newborn baby, the news that her mother would need chemotherapy slammed the brakes on her ambitions.
“Obviously, being the only girl in the family, traditionally I was expected to drop everything I had going to care for my mother.
"My older brother and I would alternate taking her to chemo, but on most occasions I would have to take her,” Joburg-based Lebang recounted.
In South Africa, one in four people are affected by cancer either directly or through the diagnosis of someone they know, like a colleague, friend or relative. This means many will go through the experience of watching someone they love battle with cancer.
Kgosana and her two brothers all felt the toll of their mom’s cancer treatment as they cared for her through its ups and downs.
“She would be so exhausted after her chemo sessions that all she would want to do was sleep. Sometimes she’d be in bed for a full two days."
But, as a daughter with an ill parent, having “the tough conversations” on finances, career sacrifices, funeral policies and what lay ahead was one of the hardest learning curves for her. “Fortunately, my mother encouraged us to not shy away from those discussions about our frustrations as opposed to us trying to take over everything as her kids. It also made her feel included and normal.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and recently the Cancer Association of South Africa, in partnership with Sanlam, developed a book on how best to support a loved one fighting cancer.
It was based on feedback from cancer patients and survivors about the support they wanted to receive during their treatment.
Dr Marion Morkel, chief medical officer at Sanlam, said the number one request from participating cancer patients was to be treated like a human.
“Many people tiptoe around a loved one, unsure of whether to engage on a deeper level, but responses from cancer patients and survivors show that tough, frank conversations are necessary,” he said
One patient said: “I needed an honest conversation about what lay ahead, and the possible path the cancer would take. Everyone is often so kind and wants the best for you, but you are not always given the chance to mourn the loss of your health.”
Morkel said it was important to mourn alongside a loved one by listening, engaging and asking questions.
“If a loved one makes a decision you disagree with, try not to be judgmental but rather accepting. Remember, these decisions are not yours to make,” Morkel said.
Kgosana said while her mother was progressing well, having an ill parent was one of the most difficult experiences. “But it’s important not to tiptoe around the person and exclude them for the day-to-day things. I’d always encourage her to go out for lunch. I’d help put on her nail-polish, help her comb her hair and I think that became the core of her recovery. That gave her strength to keep going.”