A breast cancer survivor shares her story
She lost her mom to cancer – then discovered she had it too. Now breast cancer survivor Refilwe Sedumedi wants to educate others
ASHOCK of pink hair and a bright smile are the first things you notice about her when she walks into the room with her two children.
Refilwe Sedumedi ( 41) radiates energy and vitality and has plenty on her plate – especially in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
This is the month she ramps up her work to drive home the message loud and clear: check your breasts. And act immediately if you think something is wrong.
She learnt the hard way how dangerous it can be to ignore a lump.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor in remission,” Refilwe, nicknamed Fifi, says.
“I have my God to thank that I survived this evil disease.”
It wasn’t always so easy for her to talk about cancer, let alone accept it as part of her life.
The disease has cast a shadow over her since her mother, Pontsho Sedumedi, died of a brain tumour at the age of 47 in 2004. Pontsho raised Refilwe and her older sister, Lesedi (43), so losing her was like a body blow.
She’s always feared cancer, Refilwe says, but seeing her mom’s suffering made her terrified of it.
Born and raised in a small village of Dinokaneng near Rustenburg, she lived with her mother, older sister and grandmother Mmampi Ramosotho.
Then the unthinkable happened: in 2011 she discovered a lump in her breast – but she did nothing about it for two years because “I was afraid of the outcome”.
She went to the doctor for treatment for flu in 2013 and decided to tell him about the lump in her breast.
“I just mentioned it randomly. He examined me and checked under my armpits and then gave me a worried look,” she recalls.
“That’s when I knew something was wrong.”
Refilwe was told by her doctor she urgently needed to go to a breast clinic. And she knew she could be in serious trouble.
AFTER a battery of tests, including a mammogram and an ultrasound at Hel en Joseph Breast Care Clinic, she finally heard the news she’d been dreading. She had stage 2 breast cancer – meaning the disease had spread from her breast to the lymph nodes under her arm. “The hardest thing about getting tests done is having to wait for the results because you can’t prepare yourself for what to expect,” Refilwe says. “I couldn’t eat or sleep because the wait was killing me.” She remembers the day in October 2013 like it was yesterday. She was in a terrible state, she recalls. “I don’t know if it was the devil whispering in my ear but when I was driving back home I thought if I drive in front of a truck I could die instantly and never have to deal with this.” Even though she was a single mother to Olebogeng (now 18) and Pontsho (now 12), the thought she may have cancer was enough to make her want to end it all. “I saw a truck approaching and I thought to myself this was a great opportunity for me to end my life but a little voice stopped me and told me not to do it.’’
But Refilwe, a data analyst, still couldn’t stop thinking about the way her mom died, she says.
“When my mother first got sick we thought it was a mild stroke but she just kept getting sicker and sicker until we were forced to call an ambulance to take her to hospital,” Refilwe explains.
She was bedridden for a month and was eventually moved to a single ward. Pontsho was diagnosed with a stage 4 brain tumour and by the time it was discovered it was too late – there was nothing doctors could do to help her.
“On the day my mother passed away the nurses say she was eating and she dropped her food on the floor. She fell asleep and never woke up.”
Refilwe steeled herself and went for treatment. She had her first operation to remove the lymph nodes a month after she was diagnosed, and three weeks later the lump was removed and both her breasts reconstructed – one breast was bigger than the other so surgeons worked their magic to make them even.
“You know the scary thing about going to theatre is you never know if you’re going to make it out alive or not. I have scars today on both my breasts and I look at them and say, ‘God is great because I made it out alive’.”
She also spent seven months undergoing chemotherapy, which were “the worst months of my life. My complexion changed and my nails were so dark they were charcoal”. But it was worth it. R EFILWE is celebrating four years of being cancer-free – but she admits it wouldn’t be the case without the wake-up call she received from one of her doctors. While in the throes of chemo, she was depressed, losing her hair and feeling sorry for herself.
Her doctor showed her a picture of a woman who’d been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and told her this was what awaited her if she didn’t fight it. She had a real chance, she was told.
“I looked at that woman and I felt selfish for feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t imagine what she was going through. The doctor then said to me, ‘Refilwe, it’s up to you now: do you want to fight or do you want to die?’ From then on I just thought about my kids and I found the strength to fight.”
To celebrate life and kicking cancer, she launched the Sedumedi Hope Foundation in 2016 to raise awareness of the disease and drive home the message it can be beaten. That same year she joined a group of breast cancer survivors in walking to Everest Base Camp.
She’s also become a part-time model after doing a photoshoot to show breast cancer survivors they’re still beautiful – even with reconstructed breasts.
Her daily goal now is to educate people and kill the stereotype of cancer being a white person’s disease. “I’ve realised our black communities lack knowledge about this killer called cancer. Sedumedi Hope Foundation is here to educate, empower, motivate and create awareness.”
It’s a scary disease, Refilwe admits. “But I lived,” she says. And now she wants to help others live too.
‘I have my God to thank that I survived this evil disease’
Refilwe Sedumedi with niece Keamogetswe (left) and daughter Pontsho. The cancer survivor says thinking of her family helped her fight the disease.
LEFT and RIGHT: Refilwe climbed to Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas along with other South African breast cancer survivors in 2016. Since beating the disease she’s started a foundation to raise awareness of cancer and has taken part in a campaign to fight the myth that breast cancer survivors can’t be beautiful.