Amanda Power’s story

Amanda Power

11:39 AM Feb 13, ’10

I feel both humbled and encouraged having been asked to write this piece, a story of my life so far. Humbled as I don’t know if I am worthy of this great honour and encouraged, by businesses and people who are enabling me to speak out and tell my story, which really is just one of survival.

I would like to begin by giving you a little background on myself and where I come from.

My husband, Richard, and I grew up in Fish Hoek and have known each other since high school. In our twenties we travelled overseas together getting engaged in Norfolk, England before deciding to return to South Africa to marry. Our life together continued fairly normally for a few years, both of us concentrating on our careers and trying to make headway in life.

It wasn’t without real thought and excitement that we decided to try and start a family but this proved a challenge from the very beginning and ended up our spending many years with specialist fertility doctors.   We were very lucky in that after our first in-vitro fertilization (commonly known as test tube babies) I fell pregnant with twins. What a moment of amazement and pure joy.  My pregnancy continued routinely, we went for all the necessary and exciting scans, how amazing to see two little heartbeats, I will never forget what they sounded like and I am lucky enough to have them recorded.  We loved them with all our hearts from the very beginning and I felt so proud and fulfilled.

However, devastatingly, half way through my pregnancy my waters broke. I was immediately hospitalised and after spending six weeks in the maternity ward our children were born prematurely.   I find it too painful to go back on my notes from that time, I have tried to do so when writing this piece, but still I find I haven’t reached a place where I am strong enough to do so. So I am writing from a shocked and battered memory but one which I hope to be accurate.

I was lucky enough to experience the actual joy of giving birth. We held our own two babies in our arms for a few moments before they were lost to us forever. I was able to look down on two little perfect beings that Richard and I created (albeit in a test tube) and feel that sense of awe and absolute adoration that every parent must feel at the time of a birth. We think of our two little angels each and every day of our lives and often chat about them, even 3.5 years down the line. The little lives of Christopher and Gemma made a major impact on Richard and my lives forever.

In the years that followed I had three more in-vitro fertilizations and six artificial inseminations but sadly none of our future attempts at falling pregnant succeeded.  I am no longer able to have children of my own but there is always hope at the end of a dark tunnel and for me that hope comes in the form of my younger sister, Tessa, who has offered to carry a surrogate pregnancy for us. This is no small under-taking, something like this affects every individual in a family.

But my family is a close and tightly knitted team and we will cope well, we aren’t scared of asking for help, advice or counseling and will look to the experiences of others who have been through this journey when the time comes.

An exciting avenue which Richard and I are currently exploring is that of adoption. I can’t tell you how I live for this moment in time and for my dream of raising a family to become a reality.

There is a general consensus that my cancer was caused through all of the very strong hormone treatment that I was on for many years but I have always maintained that I would never change the experience, as tough as it was and even with the results we had.

So, it was in August 2007 that our lives were once again adversely affected. After two ‘clear’ biopsies taken on a lump in my breast, mammograms and various ultrasounds I went into hospital to have what I was assured was a harmless growth removed and came home with breast cancer. I was 35 and my life and that of my family, had changed forever.

I had my 1st operation immediately following my diagnosis. I don’t remember anything of this dreadful period in time. Its amazing how one’s body goes into shock to protect itself. Mentally I just could not grasp that this life changing and life threatening occurrence was happening to me.

My 2nd operation followed three days later after which chemotherapy began. I don’t think anyone is ever quite prepared for this eventuality, I suppose in my case it was fear of the unknown – all I know is that I have never looked so forward to anything but the end of those six months.

Chemotherapy turned out to be something I never once had to endure alone.   Richard was with me for each of my six treatments as was either my father, mother, brother or sister. I find this amazing as I have a friend my age that has been though this journey and her husband never once attended a chemo session!   My never being alone was one of the major factors which enabled me to cope with chemotherapy.

Every three weeks I had a hand holding mine, someone there to help me along with my chemo drip and negotiate a trip to the toilet. I was also always guaranteed of some chatter. Never once did I have to sit and read during chemotherapy (like I saw so many patients whom were on their own doing) – for me it just wasn’t a relaxing experience and a book would never have replaced the personal touch my family added.

Chemotherapy made me very ill and a shadow of the person I once was. I was hospitalised and bed-ridden on a couple of occasions but I still managed to do some amazing things during my treatment. I enjoyed a special Christmas and New Years Eve with family and friends, and threw a birthday party for my sister who was turning thirty at the time.

Of course I had to succumb to the horrors of losing my hair. Now I know why many people say ‘just shave it off’. I partly heeded to advice and had my bra length blond hair (I know you wouldn’t believe it was blond!) cut short. Still this did nothing to quell the shock and horror of clumps of hair falling out in my hands as I ran them over my head. I was terrified of the wind blowing particularly as I didn’t want to loose my hair on one of our outings to a wine festival!  My hair-dresser came to my home, that way I didn’t have to feel the embarrassment of having my head shaved in a public place. Everyone was so encouraging, ‘you have a lovely head’, ‘perfect ears’. It took three days for me to look in the mirror, I felt like a concentration camp victim whose dignity had forcefully been taken away.

I found Richard, my knight in shining armour, to be full of his usual encouragement and compliments. He would say ‘don’t worry Mands you look lovely bald’ (I have since found he prefers me with hair!). He vigilantly explained my situation to all that asked and I never had to endure the pain of retelling my story – that is until I was ready to do so.

My mom was and still is, my pillar of strength. She can’t help being the amazing, supportive, loving woman that she is.   I remember having been bald for about a week when my mother was finally able to persuade me to go along to the local mall with her. This was, she told me, because she needed my help in selecting a present for my little nephew.  I have since worked out that this was a gross lie and in fact her way of getting me out in the world again.   She never rushed me, she let me take my time, in fact I think we sat in the parking lot for about 15 minutes until she had once again re-assured me that no one would look at me – but people do don’t they?   My mother let me know that she would always be by my side, that she would never feel ashamed or embarrassed by me. She would always support me no matter what. She taught me that I had the strength somewhere deep inside myself to face those staring eyes and looks of wonder. And with her help I found it and we went into the mall and once I had done so I discovered that it wasn’t that bad and people were looking because they felt sorry for me and my situation.

What has always amazed me is why don’t people stare at a bald man?

Radiation of course followed chemotherapy but what a breeze it turned out to be for me. I was very lucky and had no really bad reactions I could complain about.   Months of recovery have followed my treatment, however, I am now able to look back and say:   Two operations, six months of chemotherapy – followed by radiation – have allowed me to get to the place I am now – cancer free!

I used to think chemotherapy was out to kill me but I have discovered I was wrong – instead it gave me so much – it gave me my life. This disease has given me a strength I never knew I had along with resilience, determination, hope, trust, love, understanding and compassion.
I am determined to be an old lady who looks back on her life full of wonder at her achievements both large and small.

In April last year, Richard and I took part in a very special fundraising event, called the China Challenge. We like to think that we are no different to anybody else yet in some ways we are as we have lived and survived through many a struggle that not many people our age have had to endure.  We were part of a diverse group of 32 South Africans, ranging in age from 37 (I was the youngest) to 61 years old, who traveled to Beijing to participate in an 85km trek along the Great Wall of China. I must just point out that one doesn’t walk the Great Wall, one climbs it!

Our Challenge was aimed at raising awareness and funds for breast cancer patients and medical research worldwide.   This Challenge meant so much to me personally and there were so many people I wanted to achieve this life goal for, namely, for Richard. I knew if it got too tough he would carry me as he always has. For my parents and family who cried many tears behind closed doors but always put on a brave face when I was near. Always there to support and encourage me to continue the fight – those tears have formed a giant wave which I plan to ride on for the rest of my life. My friends have taught me the meaning of true friendship and devotion, as have my numerous and dedicated doctors.

My personal goal was to raise awareness for girls like me whose lives have been irreparably changed by cancer at a young age. I was determined to show them that, unbelievable as it may seem, things do get better.

I feel proud to have accomplished my goal, although I didn’t do it alone. Many affected young women, who have come into my life over the last two years since my initial diagnosis, helped me along the way – after all, I did the hike for them, carrying their remarkable spirits, in the form of pink ribbons, along with me on this journey of awareness.

By completing this very special fundraising event our astonishing team of thirty women and two men, managed to raise over R860,000 for the various charities involved. The public’s generosity was endless. This Challenge has been a tangible way to show the world that we can make a difference to the lives of people affected by breast cancer and in doing so celebrate the courage of survivors (and their families) affected by cancer.

One imagines the huge and imposing Great Wall of China to be a long and continuous winding wall that joins point A to point Z. In fact this is not the case at all. It is a series of wall sections that make up the Great Wall, parts of which date back to 200BC and all of which do not necessarily join up. If for example, there are steep mountains along the way, the wall ends and starts again on the other side (a fact I was rather glad about really!).
The Great Wall is an indescribably magnificent structure filled with the history of many Chinese dynasties. While hiking along the mostly untouched north eastern section of the Wall, it was incredible to think that it has survived, having spanned almost two thousand years of construction and de-construction by the human race – possibly this is what makes it such an awe-inspiring and soulful experience.

Our accommodation in various lodges along the way, was, on the whole, clean but basic. It took a while to get used to Chinese ablutions but we weren’t complaining, we were lucky enough to be able to have a hot shower at the end of each tiresome day!   The food the lodges provided was always abundant, with a good selection of meat and vegetables – although often we weren’t sure just what it was we were eating!

We encountered sunshine, rain and saw lots of snow (if you can believe it!) whilst walking through varying and challenging terrain and passing through remote and rural parts of China.

What a victory it was – after 6 days of relentless hiking – to reach the summit as a team. As we climbed the 436 step Heavenly Stairway (with its steep 70% incline) in our final ascent, emotions ran high. What a magnificent ending it was!

In some ways it was amazing to reach the end of our Challenge, to be able to stand and look back on the ups and down we had just conquered.
This was an immense physical achievement, especially after one’s body has been bruised and battered by the dreadful effects of chemotherapy.
But there was also far more than this – there was an incredible feeling of pride and fulfillment, almost a completeness to the end of a long and hard journey, both on this challenge and with cancer.

For me, personally, I took the time to say, ‘right Cancer, you have ruled my life and my mind for two years now – it’s now time to set me free and let me live my life’.

Each of us experienced the Great Wall differently and we came home having been introduced to diverse emotions and opinions, which only made our journey more interesting.   Within our team, we all had the common bond of cancer, which as devastating as it is, helped form the beginning of many valued friendships.

Richard and I feel honoured to have been a part of such a varied group of people, many of whom we have grown to respect and honour purely for their determination to conquer life’s challenges for something they so truly believe in – their charity.   Of course our hike wasn’t all hard work; we also had plenty of fun, mostly provided by one particular hiker who entertained us with her antics and endless production of champagne, wine and the like along the way. She was never without her sherpa in tow – who she often alerted by a mere blow on her whistle!  Another comical interlude to each day was provided by a now dear friend, who during our mid-morning ‘tea’ break on the Great Wall, always managed to produce her dainty teacup, kept in its original packaging, for her cappuccino!

We have a new respect for the villagers of rural China, who lead a tough life – it really brought home how truly blessed we are to come from a country as beautiful as Southern Africa.

We will never forget how we battled, what mountains – literal and otherwise – we climbed in our attempt to raise a message of hope for cancer sufferers worldwide.  At the end of it all each of us had to overcome our own limitations and fears along the way, physical exhaustion rewarded by a great sense of achievement.

A sobering and sad but interesting fact is that during last year’s six day trip, over 750 women were diagnosed with breast cancer – the astonishing thing is that this figure represents the United Kingdom alone!

The charity that Richard and I committed to raising sponsorship for was St Luke’s Hospice, an organisation dear to my heart as my beloved Grandpa enjoyed the wonderful care at St Luke’s in Kenilworth in the last weeks of his life.

Having being involved in the China Challenge I have personally experienced the hardship of raising sponsorship and how charities literally have to fight for the struggle to survive.  In fact, in order for Richard and I to go to China we had to raise our own funding, which we did by holding a very successful auction evening in December 2007. We secured over R120,000 worth of items – all of which were sponsored to us – to auction and we managed to raise R53,000 during the course of one evening. It really was quite an achievement and I can assure you a lot of hard work!

But back to sponsorship for St Luke’s Hospice: we targeted individuals as well as local and international companies for donations for every kilometer walked.   These supporters were mostly people whose lives have been touched by cancer either themselves, family, friends or colleagues. What all these supporters have in common is that they made an enormous difference.

We held a very successful golf day in February 2009, where we raised just over R30,000 in funds for St Luke’s Hospice.   We are currently in the process of planning and securing sponsorship for a fun walkathon named “2 Abreast”. It is going to be taking place in October this year (October is breast cancer month) and is being hosted by the V&A Waterfront. We are hoping for it to become and annual event. We are also in the process of arranging a breast cancer ball and have been approached by two highly regarded companies (Capestorm and Hip Hop) who would like to be part of our event.

Through my becoming involved with this Challenge and St Luke’s, so many unexpected doors have opened to me. This experience has provided me with a new hobby (if one can call it that) and enabled me to venture into really new territory thereby growing on a personal level, which is something I think we all aspire to do.  I have somehow become an Ambassador for St Luke’s – a role I cherish and feel honoured to claim.

I’ve always believed if you go through anything, even something as difficult as cancer, something good can come out of it.

I have come to realise that it’s not so much what happens in your life, it is how you deal with it. I cant change the fact that I have had cancer, but I can change the way I want to live the rest of my life.  Health is a gift not to be squandered.

In closing, I hope that I have inspired and motivated you, somehow enhanced your energy and filled you with enthusiasm.  I hope I have encouraged you out of your comfort zones – the benefits, I can tell you, are hugely empowering and so positive.

My goal was that you all realise that just one person standing up for our struggle can make the world of a difference to people like me. If I have accomplished this then I have already done part of what I set out to do.

They say the power of words is more than the power of swords -I hope I have proved this to be the case.  I will leave you with one last inspiring thought: How many women climb their own mountain, each and every day, in their fight against breast cancer.

Its time to show the world that we care.

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