“MY BRAIN TUMOUR FREED ME”
When an accomplished businesswoman, wife and mother gets a shocking health diagnosis, what does she do? In Leabetswe Bomvana’s case, she fought back in two ways – with her mind, and her faith.
“A Mediclinic neurosurgeon identified the brain tumour after I’d been suffering headaches, memory loss, ringing in my left ear and concentration difficulties for a few months. I had just started a new, demanding job while completing my MBA through Wits Business School. I was also lecturing part time at the UNISA School of Business Leadership, so I thought I’d simply taken on too much. I was really struggling to remember the salient points from documents I’d read, but I put it down to stress and pressure.
“Eventually I saw my physician, who referred me to an ENT specialist for my ears. After an MRI revealed a tumour on my thalamus [the part of the brain that sends sensory information to the cortex, including vision, taste, touch and balance] he referred me for urgent treatment under neurosurgeon Professor John Ouma at Mediclinic’s Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. Because of its location, and the critical nerves it was pressing on, he decided surgery was not an option. But the tumour was already bleeding into the crevices of my brain so it needed aggressive treatment.
“I was then referred to an oncologist, who devised a radiation treatment plan for me. My husband and I started having conversations with him about how to prepare myself – not only psychologically, but also physically, to start this radiation journey.
“I felt extremely overwhelmed. My job, my studies, my lecturing role, my husband and my two daughters need me to show up as a particular person and at that point, that person was severely compromised. I felt helpless, as if my value had been diminished. I was used to being a highly productive, contributing member of society, and suddenly I wasn’t. I feared I could no longer add value to people’s lives – but the last thing I wanted was sympathy. I didn’t want anyone looking at me sorrowfully, or talking to my kids about the prognosis. Almost overnight, I had this whole network of noise around me, with people interpreting the situation in different ways. I had well-meaning friends, teachers, and class moms sending messages of help, but this made me feel as if everybody had written me off as being incapable of doing anything. That’s when I realised I was only going to win the battle in two ways:
“I kept telling myself: ‘I’m just going through this challenging thing, but I’m not dying.'”Leabetswe Bomvana
“The first? I needed to work on my mental strength to get my mind around my treatment. I began with daily affirmations: ‘I am not valueless, I am not incapacitated; the fact that I’m still here is for a reason. I may not be 100% but I’m not 0%. I can still contribute value to my daughters and to my husband.’ And I asked my kids and my husband to support me in shutting people out. That meant I didn’t want anyone coming to visit or calling me. I didn’t want my kids to get caught in the narrative that their mom has a brain tumour and could possibly die. I needed to be in control of the narrative they were exposed to. And the new narrative was: ‘I’m going to get through this’.
“The second? Prayer was the second mechanism or lever that I pulled to help me get through the journey. There were times when even I was not hopeful; when I was looking at the situation and wondering if I was going to pull through. That’s when prayer gave me strength.
“I had been diagnosed in January 2021. The next month, I lost my mom to COVID-19 so everything came to a standstill. After burying her, I explained my health predicament to my CEO, who was immensely supportive. When I needed to take sick leave for radiation sessions, I had the support to take it.
Support at work
“I kept telling myself: ‘I’m just going through this challenging thing, but I’m not dying.’ I also tried to show up for certain work events. I think the only reason I was able to is because I had such a supportive boss. My CEO may not have fully understood what I was going through, but he was fully invested in my healing. He gave me complete latitude and the freedom to say when I wasn’t okay. During treatment, I suffered extreme tiredness, nausea and vomiting. But I continued working as much as possible.
“It was hard on my whole family. My eldest daughter was in Matric so she needed her mom, she needed me to be present for her. And I was just struggling with my own issues. I could see the fear and concern in my husband’s eyes too – and my youngest daughter was only 10 years old.
“At that point I still thought I was Superwoman. I thought I could still do everything myself. After the first round of radiation I realised I needed support and help. I learned other important lessons too.
“Today, I’m a lot more decisive and selective of what I allow to consume space in my mind and heart. In other words, I’m careful about what I worry about. If something is not going to be important in five or 10 years’ time, I worry less about it than something that will still matter then. I’m also bolder. If an idea works, great! If it doesn’t, let’s fail forward and fail fast and move on and learn from it and try something else. My most recent check-up showed the radiation had shrunk the tumour 60%. It’s now a waiting game to see if the remaining 40% starts shrinking on its own, stops shrinking, or starts growing. Once we know how it’s behaving, we can consider our next treatment steps. In the meantime, I continue focusing on my mental resilience and my faith.”