Former cancer fighter now brings happiness to others who have to walk this path

Henry

She experienced so much support and empathy when she had to fight the big “K” that she decided to “give back” to other cancer fighters. That’s why Margaux Needham (46) these days hands out pamper packages to women in the Pinehaven, Olivedale and Flora clinic’s oncology wards.

A small gesture that can make a big difference and which also tells that she knows what they are going through.

Margaux, who completed her grueling chemo and radiation treatment last year, says she just wanted to bring a little joy to other cancer fighters because it is so difficult to fight this disease.

Her surprise package contains items such as lip balm, lipstick and disinfectant for which she sometimes gets sponsors but to which her friends and herself also contribute.

She knows how these women feel because for months her own life was dominated by blood tests, treatment, scans and infections. For this she started a BackaBuddy page.

Today she no longer has cancer, but there are pre-cancerous cells that must be eradicated as soon as possible.

“It’s a horrible journey, but I want to see my two teenage sons Keagan (18) and Deangelo (13) grow up, hold my first grandchild and grow old with my husband, Michael.

“When I got chemo, we often received lip balm from a laboratory and hand cream from a pharmacy group. I experienced so much goodwill. That’s where the idea came to me to make such packages myself that contain toiletries and items such as Vaseline and sweets. I contacted literally hundreds of suppliers for donations.

“I plan to also expand to state hospitals’ oncology departments, because people there often need it even more.”

So far the feedback on her project has been very good. It’s fun for her to inform the cancer fighters about where she once was and where she is now. So she brings hope.

But if the patients don’t want to talk, she respects that too.

Margaux started writing a blog in which she tells about her journey with cancer.

She says that the dreaded “K” word never crossed her mind because cancer is something that happens to other people, but she is cruelly disillusioned.

Margaux discovered a lump in her breast and when it did not disappear, she had a mammogram done after which she was sent for a sonar.

“The radiologist’s finding was that he was 95% sure that it was cancer. Still it didn’t register with me. A biopsy was done to confirm the diagnosis. It was the beginning of many needles in my breasts.”

Her results showed that she had HER2-triple-positive breast cancer. She then went to prof. Carol Benn at the Breast Cancer Center of Excellence refers which is one of only three internationally accredited units of this kind outside the USA.

“So I knew I was in good hands. Fortunately, it was not necessary for a mastectomy. They would just remove the tumor and I could go to a free breast lift (boob lift) looking forward.”

After that she had to suffer an “onslaught” of tests. There was an MRI scan, dye injected into her breasts, and on top of all the “fun”, she says, another chemo port. In addition, her sentinel lymph nodes also had to be removed.

“The surgeon who inserted the port also informed me that I would get a larger port because the small ones are only for thin people!

“My oncologist dr. Zaheer Laher, didn’t bake any pretty buns. He provided me with the cold hard facts. The cancer was particularly aggressive (no one can accuse me of doing things by halves!). The lump in my breast grew quite quickly, so an aggressive treatment plan was my forte.”

Her treatment began with the infamous “red devil” chemotherapy as well as “white chemo”. She received four doses of this combination every three weeks before receiving another chemo treatment for four weeks for 12 weeks. If this treatment were to be successful, she had to use hormone pills for five years afterwards and undergo a mammogram every six months to ensure that the cancer did not return. She still has to have chemo until November this year.

After many sleepless nights and her anxiety levels “shooting through the roof”, her first day of chemo arrived. Her husband, Michael, was not allowed to stay with her due to the containment measures at the time. She also had to undergo blood tests every time before she received chemo to make sure that her white blood cell count was low, which is a condition for the treatment. The whole process then lasted for five hours.

She also received injections to stimulate the production of white blood cells. This brought side effects such as flu-like symptoms and pain. She also had to endure the chemo’s side effects which were even worse, namely fatigue, nausea as well as loss of her hair as well as a “chemo headache”. After each chemo treatment, the side effects only got worse. However, this very reassuringly also means that the cancer cells are killed.

Margaux says that her first thought about chemo was that she would lose her hair. Her beautiful thick, blonde hair which later grew into brown “chemo curls” which she just doesn’t like. After all, hair is a woman’s crown. Then she realized how superficial the thought was if she had to fight for her life.

“However, I decided that I, and not the cancer, would decide when I lose my hair. It gave me a feeling that I was in control of my circumstances. So just before my first chemo treatment I had my hair cut short. I didn’t like my short hair at all. Exactly two weeks after my first chemo treatment, my hair fell out in clumps. I was in tears because it felt like I had lost my identity.

“Then I decided to shave everything off. My mother and my two sons all took turns. It was important to me that everyone was part of the process. Then Michael also shaved off his hair. Even my boys had their signature long hair flowing. So did my best friend who traded her hair that hung down to her buttocks for a short haircut.”

In the beginning when she lost her hair, she always covered her head.

“I didn’t even want to look at myself in the mirror. After that I reached a stage where I accepted my new self.

“I do understand that it can be uncomfortable for people around people with cancer because they are then confronted with their own mortality.”

In another entry in her blog, Margaux writes equally cheekily that cancer chose “the wrong princess”.

By March last year, her “red devil” treatment was mercifully over. It was rough and even caused sores in her mouth and damage to her nails.

She also experienced endless problems with her chemo port, which repeatedly flipped over and had to be reversed during surgeries.

She contracted pneumonia during her treatment, after which an “adventure” of ten days in the hospital followed, she notes dryly.

Her oncologist was concerned about her heart because half of people who undergo chemo also develop heart problems. Again numerous tests followed. Sometimes at two and three in the morning.

Her major surgery took place on 27 June 2022 when a lumpectomy and reconstructive surgery was performed. Fortunately, the chemo shrunk the tumor that needed to be removed.

After the operation she received morphine for 12 hours and then only Panado’s for the pain. She called the doctor who prescribed it “Dr. Dubbed Panado”. She also had to receive 31 doses of radiation. Burtkrag contributed to numerous frustrations as some of her treatment sessions had to be postponed. This while this treatment, ironically, only lasts five minutes.

Although she belongs to a good medical fund, she had to make additional payments of R5 000 every third week.

Months after her last blog entry, she writes that she is 99% cured and that she would like to make cancer more understandable with her blog.

“Of course, the fear is always there that the cancer may return. I think every cancer fighter feels that this sword is always hanging over your head.

“My life these days consists of three phases – before cancer, cancer and after cancer.”

Because her administrative position at a school would expose her to many people, she was advised by her oncologist not to work during her treatment. She did not return to work until eight months later.

What advice does she have for other cancer fighters?

“I understand that cancer fighters are afraid because it involves the unknown. One does not know in advance whether the chemo will work. But, as hard as it is, my message is just that you can and want to do it. You have no other choice.

“I made two very good friends in the oncology ward who went through the same journey.

“Get more rest and don’t feel guilty about it. Put yourself first for once.”

  • Contact Margaux at Margaux.Needham@gmail.com or on 072 973 0160