The Faith of a Fighter:

Xolani Gwala’s Bat­tle With Can­cer and Jour­ney of Hope

Destiny Man - - CONTENTS -

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.”


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.

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