The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and when you look at the photo of Kirstin Pretorius and her husband Maurice celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary, there are probably more than a thousand positive words to say about it. But behind the glowing smiles and carefree demeanor, Pretorius was living with breast cancer, and she didn’t even know it.
Pretorius’ breast cancer journey began with the photo, which was taken in June during a vacation to celebrate the couple’s wedding anniversary. According to Pretorius, she had no reason to be alarmed about her health. Her and her husband trained together in a daily exercise program and made it a point to raise their daughters with healthy lifestyle habits.
In this picture, I was living with cancer. I just didn’t know it yet. Ironically, this year marked the peak of my ‘health’ and my fitness. I’ve never felt better, stronger, or more comfortable with myself than I did turning 34. My marriage had never been better and my children were thriving. Everything was beautifully bright. But, despite feeling perfectly well, I went for my routine yearly health check. And that’s when they discovered ‘the limp’. The lump. I look at this picture from a simply blissful family holiday celebrating my 10 year wedding anniversary and all I can think is… ‘KIRSTIN how can you not know that there are 3 tumours thriving away in your breast? How can you not FEEL the cancer slipping into your lymph nodes? Why don’t you FEEL sick? How can you be so stupid?!’ But I didn’t know and I didn’t feel. If my doctor hadn’t examined me, I’d still be blissfully unaware, reaching new fitness goals with my body, eating my futile little anti-oxidant high virtually-vegan wonder food diet… I’d be packing my little plastic-free super food school lunches for my girls, lecturing them on healthy lifestyles. I’d be chemically-free cleaning my home wondering why the whole world doesn’t use essential oils. All the while growing and feeding my precious cancer. So check your boobs. Know your body. Cancer happens. To anyone. #breastcancer #breastexam #cancersucks #knowyourbody
But everything changed just weeks after the photo was taken. While at a routine health checkup, her doctor noticed a lump in her breast, which surprised Pretorius as she was always vigilant about her yearly checkup, pap smear and breast exam. She even did her own exams.
“I honestly believed I would have noticed a change in my breast,” Pretorius tells The Mighty. “But I didn’t. It could only be felt when I was lying flat with my arm above my head. I had been checking in the shower before, but now realized I had been doing it wrong all along. Thank goodness I had a doctor examine me!”
The discovery of the lump led to an ultra sound, which led to a mammogram, which led to a painful and extremely stressful biopsy. That led to the call that no one wants to ever hear: the “you have cancer ” call.
Pretorius was diagnosed with breast cancer in her right breast on June 23, 2017.
She was immediately referred to a breast surgeon who booked her for a single mastectomy the following week. With everything moving so quickly, there was little room to grieve with her husband, children and extended families.
“We walked in a fog of numb shock.”
The uncertainty and fear of not waking up after surgery loomed over Pretorius. Discussing implants, saving nipples and putting in expanders, she said, was a nightmare, but thankfully, the surgery was a success.
“I woke up with a new numb boob and a nipple! I was euphoric. I had survived and wasn’t a mutant,” she said.
The euphoria lasted about half a day, which is when her daughters finally saw her. They had missed their mother and had been dealing with nothing but uncertainty since diagnosis, so they all cried together and held onto hope for the future.
After what felt like forever in the week waiting for the results of the surgery, Pretorius was dealt another blow. She had three tumors that collectively amounted to 6 centimeters in width. There was also cancer in one lymph node. Chemo. Hormone therapy for five years. Probably radiation.
“We were left spinning,” she said. “This is long-term. Our life is never going to be the same.”
Today, Pretorius is halfway through three months of chemo. Although it’s a rollercoaster of a ride, she said she takes it one day at a time, thanks to awesome friends who do things like throw her a pre-chemo party.
A supportive father.
And it’s done. I can’t believe my dad flew across from the other end of the globe, to arrive just in time to get this shave behind us! Just in time for chemo round one tomorrow. (And my girls handled it like rock stars! ). I’m beyond relieved. #breastcancer #chemoready #onemorefightwon #cancerwarrior
And a loving husband.
She also has an amazing sense of humor! One minute she’s saying goodbye to “overrated hair.”
The next, she’s changing personas with wigs.
It turns out that wigs are the BUSINESS. Watch out, I’ve got one for nearly every mood and I’ve been medically warned that ‘menopausal mood swings’ will be coming my way. Who knows which one of my personae you might run into?… this is my bad cop/good assassin wig which may be totally unnecessary for dog walking and school pickup, but it’s always better to be over prepared I say. #funtimesahead #countdowntochemo #breastcancer #itstillsucks #itsuckslesswhentheresahotwig
Poking fun at chemo.
This danger space zone is actually me having my first chemo! The scalp ‘cooling’ machine (ha more like scalp ‘freeze’ and ‘suffocate’ machine) was the first challenge. Fortunately once they froze my fingers, the hour of frost bite torture took my mind right of my throbbing scalp. Small victories!! Ooh well, anything to prevent these finger nails from falling off! Challenge number 2 was watching the nurse climb into full toxic waste protective gear (goggles and all) just in case some of my poison splashed… But oh no it’s perfectly safe to put it directly into your blood stream! BUT, Chemo one is done and dusted. ???????????? Thank goodness I had my beautiful blankie and pashmina from gorgeous friends to keep me warm all day. ???? and i felt all the love sent from across the world ????… Thank you! #breastcancer #chemo #cancersucks #cancerwarrior #scalpcooling #frostbitefighter
And getting ready to embrace the turban.
What do you do when your hair is falling out in patches and you’re literally shedding throughout the house despite wasting 5 & 1/2 hours in a frozen torture cap? Step one – shave your husband’s hair in a very classy skew Mohawk so everyone stares at HIM. (Brilliant idea babe!) @mjpre Step two – get the whole family to shave your head even shorter and get ready to embrace the #turban . Luckily they’re so very on trend right now. (Yes keep telling yourself that Kirstin.) #chemohair #cancershave #hairloss #breastcancer #cancersucks #cancerwarrior #cancerfighters
But going through chemo does have its dark days, as Pretorius now knows all too well. She admits to never having depression or anxiety before breast cancer, and has to learn how to cope with the negative side effects of treatment.
My head yesterday before I shaved even shorter. Just delightful! It didn’t elegantly drop to the ground like autumn leaves. It ripped away in painful patches to accentuate the face of disease. In addition to the obvious horror of losing yet another symbol of femininity, for the last few days my scalp has been ALIVE. I could literally feel the hair follicles burning and screaming as they died. My scalp was itchy and sensitive as if covered in a raging rash. And then there’s the anxiety. I knew it was going to happen between chemo week 2 and 3, but when it arrived, I was knocked to the ground. I lay awake feeling my hair over and over for more loss. I tossed, dreaming of turbans and wigs and strong winds revealing my scalp. And now I lay openly exposed. Dear stranger, I have cancer. I can no longer hide. This is my new identity. There is no anonymity. #cancerrealities #cancersucks #chemosucks #chemohair #scalpcoolingsucks #itallsucks #chemo #fightingalltheway #balderbutbolder
Pretorius is sharing her cancer story on social media for a few reasons. First, she wants her story to illustrate the importance of regular health checkups and taking charge of your own body. People need to take time to know what’s happening in their bodies, note changes and act on them. To her, early detection is key.
The second reason she wants to stress is that no one is immune to cancer. You can get it despite living a healthy and active lifestyle.
“Everyone is at risk. I was young, fit and extremely healthy prior to diagnosis,” she said. “I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. I still got it.”
The storms blew and scattered my plans, But I wiped away tears and painted a smile, Gathered the flowers strewn at my feet And assembled a crown. #breastcancerwarrior #chemocrown #flowercrown #flowerswhentheresnohair #inspiredbypetals #dsfloral #floweraddict #cancerfighter #cancersucks #instapoetry #cancerinspiration
Finally, she wants others to know having cancer doesn’t mean your life is over. She has forced herself to find joy and create positive memories for her children. She drags herself out even when she can’t bare her new reflection.
“Yes, I’ve had to reinvent myself to have the courage to step into the world, but it is possible. It’s still possible to find happiness through the unexpected.”
There’s nothing like a cancer induced buzz cut to force a bit of personal reinvention! It’s been a real challenge to try and feel comfortable and confident when my reflection doesn’t look like ME. I’m a bag of bones, pail and exhausted AND have no hair. But life carries on and I refuse to hibernate for 6 months. So I’ve wrapped myself in bright sunshine pashminas, dangled on some enormous earrings, smeared on joyful hot pink lipstick and plastered on the biggest smile I can. ‘Out with the old and in with the new’. ???? #breastcancer #cancerwarrior #chemohair #buzzcut #newstyle #survivor #newbeginnings
Today, this full-time mom has two main focuses in life. One is to heal. The other is to raise two beautiful, strong women who can surround themselves by contemporaries who take charge of their bodies and their health care.
Her advice: “Know your body. That’s it.”
You can follow Kirstin’s “Kicking the Big C” journey on Instagram.
For more stories like this, like Cancer on The Mighty on Facebook.
All photos courtesy of Kirstin Pretorius’ Instagram page