The pink ribbon campaign masks a relentless killer

Claudia Zwane (28), a survivor champion of routine breast self-examination and early detection featured in an October Pink Ribbon Campaign in South Africa Elle Magazine has died. What stories of women who courageously "battled" and "truimphed" over breast cancer do not tell women is the fact that initial breast cancer diagnoses does not kill women but metastatic disease does.


Zwane might have picked up her lump during a routine breast examination like I did, but both our "early detections" did not spare us from the ravages of  beastly breast cancer. Also, our discoveries did not mean that we caught our breast cancer early and our lives have been saved as a consequence. Ours ain't  glossy magazine pretty pink stories. She has perished. Ironically just as her story of "inspiration" in the uber trendy Elle South African version freshly hit the women's magazine stands.


I am still here. But contrary to what the media, policy-makers and pink lobby advocates will have you believe, I too have not conquered the beast. You will not read of the dangers of chemotherapy in the public press.


Here is the deal, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2006. Underwent 6 cycles of combination chemotherapy at 3 week intervals. My treatment regime comprised of antracyclines (Adriamycin - commonly known as "the red devil"), alkylating agents (cyclophosphamide) and antimetabolites (5-Fluorouracil).


Typical chemotherapy side effects like fatigue, nausea, hair loss, gum sensitivity, etc. were communicated to me upfront. Actually, I was advised to get a wig before starting treatment because most women find hair loss very traumatic.


I wish the have warned about the real stuff. If only I had been told of the risk of cardio toxicity associated with anthracycline based chemotherapies like Adriamycin which I was on. Well, you see - scientifically there is a "very low" risk of a woman developing heart failure (damage to the pumping ability of the heart muscle). I was told my risk was "so remote - about 1 per cent" when I complained of palpitations from the fourth to the sixth cycle of chemotherapy.


The medical and pharmaceutical establishments did not provide me with the scientific risk factors because I would not understand or be interested in the evidence based ramifications of my medical treatment options. 


My risk was not outlandishly low as claimed. I developed severe congestive heart failure a week after I completed my sixth cycle of chemotherapy. Research conducted among African-American and Chinese women show that they are more prone to developing cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) than white women. Something to do with their genetic ability to metabolize chemotherapy. As an African woman, I fall into this "box". 


Research has also shown that African-American women have a greater incidence of difficult-to-treat, more aggressive tumors or biology not yet known.


Five years after diagnosis, is meant to the highlight of my "survivorship". Time for me to relax and put my breast cancer woes behind me. But alas, I was fitted with an implantable cadioverter defibrillator in April 2011  - almost 5 years to the day of my initial diagnosis in April 2006. I have a high risk of suffering a fatal heart attack. Heart disease and not the original breast cancer is my current primary chronic health disease. It has robbed me of my career as a lawyer because of my inability to optimally function for more than four hours a day.


I most probably will die from heart disease than from breast cancer. But we cannot rule out a recurrence and/or metastatic disease. For me personally, there's nothing pink ribbon pretty about this picture.







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