Elizabeth Mentor was playing with her twin boys in September 2015 when one of the 6-year-olds tapped her on her right breast to show her something and she felt a sharp pain.
The pain went away and she forgot about it, until the following month. It was October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and she happened to read an article on the subject in the Athlone News.
She was 48 at the time and had still been experiencing an uncomfortable sensation in her right breast and an occasional lameness in her right arm, which she had attributed to overwork – she is a lieutenant-colonel in the police and back then was working at Manenberg police station.
But she still decided to go for a check-up.
She says her general practitioner found a lump in her breast but told her it was just tissue.
But two weeks later, she told her husband, Joseph Damons, that she could feel an uncomfortable sensation every time she lifted her arm.
“My husband told me that he knows my body better than anyone else and told me to lie down on the bed and he examined me and felt a lump. That weekend, we went away and we popped in by my aunt in Stellenbosch, who worked as a nurse practitioner. The next Monday, she went with me to Groote Schuur Hospital for my test.”
On Friday December 4, at 11am, Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor’s life changed – she was diagnosed with Stage-3 aggressive breast cancer in her right breast.
Doctors told her she would need an operation in the next two weeks and chemotherapy after that.
“I was shocked, thinking that someone had made a mistake. Up until that moment, I never thought that I had breast cancer as I have no family history of it. I had to get over that shock and accept my diagnosis first before I could do anything else.”
On January 14 2016, Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor had a mastectomy of her right breast, but the cancer had spread – one of the lymph nodes in her right arm had to be removed as well.
She had six chemotherapy sessions over the next six months, then 18 courses of Herceptin, a drug used to treat metastatic cancer. She was scheduled for radiation therapy but she developed a frozen right shoulder and had to undergo physiotherapy so she never had it.
“The chemotherapy made me sick. All my body hair fell out, my nails turned black. I Iost my sense of taste, I lost so much weight and had constant pins and needles. The Herceptin wasn’t bad, it didn’t really have side effects.”
During her chemotherapy, Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor joined the Reach For Recovery cancer support group after she received a visit from one of their volunteers who brought her a pamper bag with their pamphlet in it.
The volunteer also spoke about her own experience with cancer, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor says this gave her the hope she needed.
Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor herself is now also a volunteer.
In November last year, she was promoted and now works at the provincial police office in Cape Town.
She joined the Amabele Belles dragon boat club. She says it’s a great way to stay healthy and socialise.
“To be in the ocean and able to explore the beloved harbour is wonderful. The boat takes about 20 of us and we are all one at that moment, all in one struggle. I encourage others to join. If it hadn’t been for my breast cancer diagnosis I would have never been able to explore like this.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Mentor says there is life after a cancer diagnosis.
“I feel good, I feel proud of myself, I feel that my life matters. If I can inspire just one person at least I know I’ve done my job.”