Three weeks ago, we at Thislife Online put out a call on our Facebook page for people to send us their stories of hope. MARGIE HISCOCK was the first to respond. ‘Nine months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and this week have my last treatment. I’m nervous to put myself out there but I would love to encourage others’. Thank you so much, Margie, for reaching beyond your privacy instinct! Here’s Margie’s story as told to SHIRLEY FAIRALL. We at Thislife are particularly touched by a gesture made by Margie’s daughter Tamsyn. Read on to find out what she did…
Teacher Margie (56) grew up in Cape Town where she still lives with husband Gavin, a retired property manager, and their two children, Tamsyn (23) and Murray (21). She attended Westerford High School, studied at Stellenbosch University, and now manages the Old Westerfordian Association for the alumni of Westerford High School
‘WHEN I DISCOVERED a hardening in my breast I didn’t react immediately. In the past, mammographers had told me I had lumpy breasts, so I wasn’t worried. I was invigilating year-end exams at Westerford, always a busy time, so it was November 2017 before I saw my doctor. He sent me for a mammogram and I was whipped in for a biopsy.
Gavin came with me to get the results from the surgeon, who was lovely. Although much of that time passed in a blur, I remember him introducing himself by saying, ‘So sorry to meet you like this…’ We were stunned by the diagnosis but stayed calm. I think it took a while to sink in. Even now, I find it difficult to think of myself with cancer because I’m very healthy and there’s no history of it in my family.
‘everything moved very quickly’
The surgeon went through what needed to be done and everything moved very quickly from there. He recommended an oncologist who prescribed chemo and I just followed his lead. It helped enormously that I was given expert and compassionate medical care that we could afford through our medical aid. Small things made us laugh and gave us hope.
Margie sporting the ‘duckling’ regrowth look alongside husband Gavin | Photo: Nicky Elliott
When Gavin asked about my prognosis, the surgeon joked that he wasn’t going to get rid of me that quickly! We were also grateful Gavin had recently retired because he could accompany me, and it took two of us to absorb it all.
Our children were very supportive. Luckily they’re older so I didn’t have to worry about them, plus they could help out. My boss was wonderful and told me to take whatever time I needed.
‘we formed a club called Bosom Buddies’
Three of my colleagues were diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time so we formed a little club called Bosom Buddies. Our journeys were very different and we all reacted to various treatments in different ways, but for all of us I think it was lovely to have the support of people who were in the same boat.
My first course of treatment was chemo. I had my treatment at Vincent Pallotti Hospital where the nursing staff were so kind and offered really good practical tips. But chemo isn’t fun. I discovered that chemo brain is definitely a thing: after a session you become quite unfocused.
‘I was touched by people giving me gifts, and gathered a fantastic collection of scarves and hats,’ says Margie | Photo: Nicky Elliott
However, many things made the journey easier for me.
When I started losing my hair, my daughter Tamsyn offered to cut her own hair to make a wig for me. She’s getting married in December so that would have been a real sacrifice but that’s just who she is, so thoughtful and loving. This was a highlight for me. Instead, I had her shave my head and I gathered a fantastic collection of scarves and hats. I love clothes and fashion so I had a lot of fun with that, and don’t mind admitting I was vain enough to appreciate when people complimented me on how I looked. As my hair starts to grow out, I’m enjoying my little brush cut: it looks like a little duckling. I’m quite looking forward to the next stage.
Also, I knew people who had been through cancer and I’d see that they were fine and that was very encouraging. I was grateful for the people who offered meals and other practical help. I’d also get messages out of the blue from friends and family, and those boosted me.
The family: Murray, Tamsyn and Gavin. Tamsyn offered to cut her own hair to make a wig for her mother, even though she was on a countdown to her wedding. ‘This was a highlight for me,’ says Margie
Another thing that helped is that I’m a pretty positive person, and when people said nice things about my attitude, their reinforcement really built me up and helped keep me that way.
But I got the most benefit from knowing that my church and many people were praying for me. Of course I did think about whether I would die but I was never scared. I think I was able to stay calm and not panic because I trusted God, as I always have. I thought if this was the path He’d put me on, so be it. It was humbling. You’re not in control so you just have to trust.
I never felt angry with God and got on with doing what was required. I felt there were many answered prayers throughout my cancer journey, from the timing of my illness to my oncology nurse neighbour being able to help me with an abscess I developed: she’s moved away now and I believe she was a gift from God at my time of need.
‘sense of God’s purpose’
I was born into a Christian, church-going family, but God became real to me at age 10 through reading a book called Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St John. I identified with the little girl being brought up by her grandmother since I too was what we call in South Africa a laat lammetjie (late lamb).
I felt a sense of God’s purpose for my life even then, and I’ve often felt Him working in my life, from the student communities I have been involved in to the timing of events in my life, like jobs. Having children also kept me on my knees and I believe God has answered many prayers concerning them.
Margie before she was diagnosed with breast cancer
For the first four treatments, the fluid that’s pumped into you is red so it’s known as the red devil. A Christian friend suggested that I shouldn’t think of it like that but rather as the blood of Jesus. I found that image really helpful and comforting.
Chemo was followed up with surgery. I was in hospital five days and it was a pretty good experience but the biopsy showed cancer in the lymph nodes afterwards, which was disappointing. I had intensive radiation as a result, which I recently finished. After three months I’ll go back for a mammogram and ultrasound, and then again after six months, and so on at increasing intervals. The oncologist says I should now say I had cancer.
You ask me the worst thing about it: I can’t even answer that question as I haven’t thought about it in those terms. I can tell you the good things though. It highlighted my relationships with others. I was so touched by people contacting me, and by lovely gifts of flowers, scarves and candles. It also highlighted the present. I learnt a lot and it made me braver. Because I handled it I have more confidence now. Best of all, it confirmed that God is with me all the time.
‘I’m so aware I’m privileged’
I’m so aware as I speak of how privileged I am and there are so many others in South Africa for whom it is a far greater struggle. I heard about a lady who wasn’t going to her treatment because she couldn’t afford the transport so I’m paying for her to get there and back. It’s just a tiny thing I can do, and I’m so aware she still has to catch public transport there and back and feel dreadful all the way home.
Two things made all the difference for me: connecting to God and having a positive frame of mind, which was boosted by all the love and support I got. Life is about faith. I have an eternal perspective now: it doesn’t matter when I die, I’ve been given this life for however long I’ve been given it. I lead quite a routine, ordinary life, not very different from many other people. But what makes my life special is having God walk with me.’
THE SACRED SEVEN – Margie’s top tips for encouraging others going through cancer
- Cultivate a positive attitude and belief that you can fight it. I never thought I wouldn’t be well again
- Accept the love and support of family and friends
- Avoid sugar
- I prayed through each chemo and radiation session – try it!
- Keep doing what you do if you can, like working (I realise I was lucky to be part time and get school holidays)
- Exercise! I’m a runner and tried to keep up running gently or walking every day