Johannesburg - As a fitness instructor and health fanatic, cancer was the last thing Thato Moncho thought she would have to fight.
It was late 2020, when lockdown restrictions to arrest the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic were eased to lower levels in South Africa, when the 38-year-old was taking her usual afternoon run and noticed that her breasts would pop out as she was jogging.
“I’m a fitness instructor by profession and running is one of the key things in my lifestyle. One afternoon I was running up Klipspruit Valley Road known as “Killer Road” in Orlando West and as I went up the steep hill, my breasts kept popping out. I thought something was maybe wrong with my sports bra or I had probably gained weight.
“I kept running and fixing my bra at the same time. At the end of that week, I gave a proper look at myself in the mirror and noticed that my breasts were not the same in size. My one breast looked swollen and the other looked normal.
“I remember saying to my mother, ‘My breasts are not the same size’ and she brushed me off, saying it is common for each breast to be slightly different in size to the other. One looked bigger compared to the other which looked a bit flat,” said Moncho.
Moncho went to the local internet cafe in her area to do some research and gain some insight into what might have been the cause of the visible difference in the size of her breasts.
“The assistant at the cafe looked at me and asked, ‘What is wrong with your breasts? They look weird – one looks bigger than the other.’ She instantly noticed the strange difference. I searched for the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) and I gave them a call, that my breasts looked strange and I would like to have them examined,” she said.
She was told she would be called a week later, but after making a second enquiry two weeks later, the organisation told her they were fully booked and would need to find a suitable schedule for her.
“In August of 2020, I made my way to the CANSA centre in Boksburg (Ekurhuleni). I then had my first screening and I had a letter written, transferring me to Helen Joseph Hospital,” Moncho said.
The following day, she went to the Johannesburg Hospital, in Auckland Park, where the doctor who did her screening said it might have been a case of breast TB, but, all the same, booked her for a mammogram and then put her on red alert, which meant that she might have ‘red flag’ symptoms indicative of possible cancer.
In September 2020, Moncho did her mammogram and they couldn’t see anything. A lump was visible but no cancer was detected at the time, though surgeons were worried that she had developed a considerably big lump on her breast at just 36 years old. On doing the ultrasound, no cancer was detected even then.
“All I knew was that it was strange that I had this lump on my breast, yet no cancer was being seen from the screening or mammogram. It was not normal. They then suggested conducting a biopsy and I would receive the results in a week.”
She was called in for her results, a week after the biopsy was conducted, and learned that she had inflammatory breast cancer. She said her diagnosis confirmed her suspicions.
“I already knew I had cancer. I had that conversation with myself to expect anything that may come my way. For me, it was a matter of looking for solutions from there.”
She began her chemotherapy treatment at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and was put on the doxorubicin drug known as “The Red Devil” that is an intravenous cancer medicine with a clear, bright red colour, which is how it got its nickname.
“Side effects I was told I would experience included loss of hair, weight loss, and that I may lose my complexion. I went back to do my research on chemotherapy on what to do to minimise the side effects.”
October 7, 2020, was her first day of chemo at the Johannesburg hospital. Twenty-one days later she returned for her second shot of treatment.
“The first thing I felt was a sensation of shock on my joints, my knees and legs. I instantly felt dizzy and it took half an hour to kick into my system.”
The 38-year-old fitness instructor has now undergone nine cycles of chemo treatment with three surgeries to have her lump removed. While the lump was removed from her breast, she developed another lump under her armpit which indicated that the cancer had potentially returned. She underwent surgery again last year to have the growing underarm lump removed. Then on treatment, with one of her breasts removed, Moncho said she still feels good about life and continues to be on a healthy diet.
“I take it one day at a time. It has been a rollercoaster for me and my family but I take it easy. While I am still a fitness instructor, I take it easy on certain exercises that I have to do so as not to put too much pressure on my body,” she said.