Facing up to the challenge
A businesswoman who was a survivor of breast cancer continues to inspire other sufferers
AT 61, successful entrepreneur and businesswoman Penny Parolis was diagnosed with breast cancer while on holiday in Greece.
For her, this month, marked globally as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, has special significance as she ponders her battle to beat the condition. Now, aged 67, she’s been cancerfree for five years.
South African women have a one-in-nine chance of getting cancer, with breast cancer the most likely.
White and Indian women are most at risk, with breast cancer the second most likely cancer for black and coloured women.
As with many other cancers, early detection is crucial to effective treatment and a positive outcome. The statistics are in sufferers’ favour – 90 percent of women diagnosed early with breast cancer, and who receive appropriate treatment, can look forward to long-term survival.
Parolis has been in the lingerie industry for more than 20 years, after starting it with her son Dimitri in October 1993.
At first they travelled Joburg’s street trying to sell hosiery in summer boutiques. But today, Parolis owns PDL Distributors – importers and distributors of high-quality lingerie to stores around southern Africa.
She and her son also own three Cape Town boutiques operating under their brand, Inner Secrets Lingerie.
Parolis is frank that her breast cancer diagnosis brought enormous challenges. But with the help, love and support of family, friends and staff, she got her second chance.
“It was July 2011 and I’d just travelled to Greece from the Paris shows with a bad cold. I remember taking a shower the following morning and it was then that I felt a lump in my breast and knew something wasn’t right,” she says.
She immediately told her husband, Harry, who told her to get dressed so he could take her to the doctor.
That very evening she had a mammogram and scan, and was diagnosed with a malignant tumour.
Parolis had gone for a gynaecological check-up that January, but the doctor told her the cancerous lump had grown so fast. There were two options: either have the cancer removed in Athens, or return to South Africa for surgery.
“Why me? I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me, especially since the bra industry was close to my heart,” Parolis recalls thinking.
Her immediate choice was to return South Africa, to the love and support of family and friends.
“Within a week we were back in South Africa and I had an appointment with Dr Jennifer Edge, a specialist in breast cancer and surgery. The operation was scheduled for the Tuesday, but because of my bad cold we had to postpone to the Thursday.
“The fact that my surgery had been postponed to this particular day was significant to my family and me. July 28 is the celebration day of St Irene Chrysovalantou, a saint who means a great deal to us. I felt blessed,” she says.
Parolis recalls the incredible feeling of inner strength she felt take over her body as she was wheeled into surgery.
“I remember Dr Edge saying to me that her team would take good care of me.
“I woke up with both my breasts well bandaged, and now it was time to discuss the next step – treatment.”
Her bandages were removed after six weeks, and tests had to be done in the US to determine whether radiotherapy and chemotherapy were necessary.
“It was a costly procedure to send the cells over to the US, but my husband said it had to be done despite the costs. It took another six weeks and the tests came back saying I only needed radiotherapy.
“After recuperating for a month, I was ready for treatment. I had six weeks of intensive daily radiotherapy treatment and had virtually no side effects.”
As if that challenge wasn’t enough, one of Parolis’s larger customer was preparing to declare himself insolvent – he had outstanding orders worth R750 000 with PDL Distributors.
“Everything was happening at once. It was a massive challenge for us as we had to deal with the expenses of my surgery and treatment, and now this on top of it.
“With my amazing family support system, we’ve managed to overcome it all.”
For women going through a similar situation, she stresses that faith kept her going.
“From faith you derive strength, and from strength you develop a positive energy and mindset that will get you through a critical time.
“There’s also another extremely important aspect to healing and that is the help of support groups.
“We are human and we need to share our feelings and challenges with others. You never know when you could be inspiring and helping someone else.”
Then she adds: “One last thing is that women are often left feeling unattractive and depressed while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Do things daily for yourself that make you feel important and special.
“For me, wearing feminine lace lingerie had helped. I couldn’t wear underwired bras during and after treatment, so I opted for lacy bralettes that were soft on my skin, and made me feel feminine.
“It’s the small things that make the difference,” Parolis says. – Weekend Argus Reporter
Contestants take part in The 4th Avenue Bra Run held in Parkhurst, Joburg, in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness in 2014.