The Faith of a Fighter:
Xolani Gwala’s Battle With Cancer and Journey of Hope
On 3 September 2018, BBC journalist Rachel Bland tweeted: “In the words of the great Frank S, I’m afraid ‘the time has come’. And suddenly, I’m told, I’ve only got days. It’s very surreal. Thank you so much for all the support… Au revoir, my friends.” Two days later, she succumbed to breast cancer, after a two-year battle with it. Gwala relates this story to put into perspective his own harrowing experience of cancer.
Gwala’s cancer started in his colon, but spread to his liver and lungs. It was an incomprehensible blow for a man at the peak of physical fitness, who had completed the London Marathon just three months earlier. “Every single day I’m reminded of what
I’ve come through. Turn on the TV and there’s live coverage of Aretha Franklin’s funeral, after she died of pancreatic cancer. There’s Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer. And then there’s Rachel Bland. Reflecting on these stories reminds me how lucky I am to be here,” he says.
It was in September 2017 that Gwala first announced to a stunned radio audience that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. His colleague Steven Grootes, who had been standing in for him since he’d taken ill six weeks earlier, conducted the interview with him and couldn’t help crying. Many listeners feared the worst for Gwala, since such a diagnosis is invariably assumed to herald the end. But listening to Gwala that day, one got the impression of a man at peace with the hand he’d been dealt. Absent was any sense of fear or self-pity. “I accepted it the day I was told and I still accept it today. Fortunately, I’ve never been the type of person to ask: ‘Why me?’ In fact every time that question came up, I’d ask: ‘Why not me? If not me, then who?’” reflects Gwala.
It was this attitude that helped prepare him for what was literally the fight of his life. Accompanying him to the studio the day he broke the news to the public were his wife Peggy-Sue, his close friend Robert Marawa and the man he now calls one of his heroes, oncologist Dr Omondi Ogude. Apart from their wealth of medical expertise, Ogude and his colleagues were also Gwala’s biggest cheerleaders. They took on what seemed to many to be Mission Impossible. “Dr Ogude told me at some point that when he first saw my liver, there was more cancer than organ,” recalls Gwala. The early prognosis was ominous. The cancer was so widespread that it presented a major challenge for doctors to operate on. “The first surgeon who looked at my case dismissed it out of hand, but Dr Thomas Marumo, another one of my heroes, was willing to give it a go. I haven’t quite figured out why, but for some reason, these guys were willing to take on this battle with me. Perhaps the fact that they’re all more or less my age had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, they took my case very personally. They believed in me and I placed my implicit trust in their abilities, allowing them to lead me on this journey.”
The sad reality is that for most South Africans who are diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, the prospects of survival are slim – not only because of the debilitating effects of the disease, but because of the prohibitive costs of treatment. The vast majority of people in this country are totally dependent on the public health system for medical care. Despite enjoying the lion’s share of government’s annual budget, it bears a heavy disease burden and is massively under-resourced. It’s also a matter of public record that state hospitals are woefully illequipped when it to comes to cancer treatment. Even for those fortunate enough to have medical aid cover, the cost of prolonged treatment – like that
which Gwala underwent – can be ruinous.
“Had I not had medical aid, and the employer I have, and the wife I have, I’d almost certainly be dead. It’s as simple as that,” declares Gwala. “I went through 12 sessions of chemotherapy. Each one cost over R45 000. The oncology budget on my medical aid was initially R200 000 per year, which meant I was covered for four or five treatments at the most. That’s just for chemotherapy and excludes the surgeries I had to undergo. Once I’d exhausted the R200 000 budget, medical aid only paid 60% of the treatment and I had to pay the shortfall myself. You can imagine what that means for someone without medical aid or the means to pay for themselves,” he explains.
“The one state hospital with a relatively functional oncology unit is the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg. But because it’s the only one, there’s a huge backlog and patients may have to wait up to four months to be seen. And waiting that long for treatment when you’ve been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer almost certainly means death.”
It’s not only treatment which is inaccessible to the average South African. “I recently talked to a gastroenterologist who runs her own practice. She says she sees up to 100 patients every year who exhibit symptoms of cancer. But the cost of a colonoscopy or an endoscopy can be as high as R13 000 per scope.”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT LIES AHEAD, BUT I’M DEEPLY GRATEFUL TO HAVE BEEN GIVEN A SECOND CHANCE.”
Gwala feels passionately about the need to either reduce, or supplement, the exorbitant costs of oncological treatment. He’s actively enlisting the support of medical practitioners and experts in the field. “I’ve spoken to the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who’s been vocal about the need to extend access to affordable treatment not just of cancer, but of healthcare in general,” he says.
“We need to do a lot more to raise awareness of this issue. We have to get the word out that if you or anyone in your family has ever had cancer, there’s a greater risk that you might develop it too. That didn’t apply in my case, since there’s no history of cancer in my family. Secondly, we have to ensure that public hospitals are equipped to offer screening. If my cancer had been picked up while it was still in my colon, I wouldn’t have gone through all the pain I endured. Unfortunately, it had already spread to my liver. There’s still the misguided belief among black communities that cancer is a ‘white man’s disease’, yet the evidence suggests that the majority of new diagnoses are among young black people,” says Gwala. “But how do we tell people to go and get checked if they have to fork out R13 000 for a scope? We have to make treatment of cancer as accessible as treatment of HIV/Aids, because cancer’s just as prevalent – if not more so – than that disease. There should be at least one oncologist in each of our public hospitals. That’s the challenge facing us and I’m hoping to tackle it, with the support of people like the Health Minister.”
For now, he’s relieved to be back doing what he does best. It was little over a month after his last surgery that he returned to the airwaves. “It was bloody emotional. Just a few months ago, I thought I’d never be on radio again. I was so overwhelmed after that first broadcast that when I got home that evening, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t even switch my phone on. I just went straight to bed. I was emotionally and mentally exhausted,” he recalls.
Gwala’s ordeal had also afforded him other insights. “Being at home gave me a taste of the life of many unemployed South Africans, who wake up to nothing on a daily basis. I would spend the whole day lying on the couch watching TV. Then I’d go to bed and do it all again the next day. For someone as active and busy as I used to be, that was incredibly hard to take. I felt completely useless. It was a totally emasculating experience.”
However, while being back in the studio has brought him great joy and relief, Gwala insists that he has no intention of returning to the relentless schedule of the past. “I’m very wary of overexerting myself. I’m still undergoing what’s known as maintenance chemotherapy, which is a much lighter form of the treatment I was on. So I have to be careful and ease back into things. As I regain my strength, I’ll be able to take on more responsibilities, but for now I must take care.”
Apart from the psychological benefits of being able to work again, the financial benefits are also crucial. Many of Gwala’s sizeable medical bills still need to be paid. “I’ve been incredible fortunate that during the entire period when I was off air, Primedia continued paying my salary, even though it was under no obligation to do so, since I’m not a fulltime employee,” he says. “This was the company’s first experience of such a situation, so it didn’t even have a precedent to guide it. As a direct result of my case, Primedia’s started working on a policy to deal with such eventualities, especially relating to on-air people like me who are on contracts.”
After a year of aggressive chemotherapy and four surgeries, Gwala’s doctors say his cancer’s completely under control. However, remissions are never a guarantee that the disease won’t recur. Through the depths of pain and despair which he’s experienced in the past year, he’s been forced to confront his own mortality at just 42 years of age.
“I no longer fear death. I’ve learnt to be thankful. We place so much pressure on ourselves to achieve all sorts of material things, but in fact, we’re just ungrateful. Naturally, it would be hard for my wife and children to make do without me, but I honestly don’t think I’ve done too badly in my life.
“I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m deeply grateful to have been given a second chance. That’s why it’s so important to me to help others going through the same thing,” he says.