The stories we often hear about cancer are frightening to say the least; we hear about the distress it causes, the unattractive frailness it brings, the hope it kills and the possibility of death that it invites.
In the face of these frightening stories, Julia Shabalala and Botlebosele (Botle) Mofokeng, two best friends, lived out an inspiring tale that speaks of courage, unconditional love, strength and sisterhood. Only one of them had cancer, but it was always a battle set out for the both of them.
Julia started to feel lumps in her breasts several years ago. With the doctors ruling out the possibility of it being breast cancer, she put the thought far back in her mind and carried on with life as she knew it. Over the years the lumps remained, but it wasn’t until last year when they started growing even bigger that Julia was haunted with worry.
The voice she had been brushing off in the back of her mind grew louder, this together with her colleague’s plea of concern finally pushed Julia into making the dreaded medical appointment that would change her life. She already suspected that she may have breast cancer, but it was still the toughest bit of news she has ever had to swallow. Her doctors were shocked because she was the youngest case they had come across.
From the moment that she was diagnosed, Julia was going from one doctor’s appointment to the next, spending most of her time under machines. One of the first and hardest decisions that the illness forced her to make was her resignation: “I had to resign because I always had to go to the hospital. I didn’t want to be the sickly individual that always had to take time off,” she explains. This thing that had invaded her body was not just a threat to her physical health, but it was turning out to be threat to her career as well. It wasn’t easy for her to watch all her peers move forward with their careers while she was being held back by the illness.
When someone close to you is diagnosed with a life threatening illness, it is highly likely that your own world will be shaken. This was the case for Botle who describes how shocked she was when she found out about Julia’s diagnosis: “I didn’t know what to do. In the beginning it wasn’t about Julia it was about me, I thought: How am I going to do this? I’m not good at saying the right things.”
What made the news particularly overwhelming for Botle was the fact that Julia has always been what she describes as her “Dr Phil”, it was Julia that always knew what to say, and in a matter of moments the roles switched. After going back and forth about the huge task that lay ahead of her as a friend, Botle eventually decided to be a source of light to Julia by simply continuing to be the friend she has always been, and taking it from there: “I knew she’d appreciate anything, she wouldn’t expect too much from me. Ever since all that, it was easy sailing.”
THE BIG FIGHT
Botle simply being herself turned out to be all that Julia needed, and with that the two friends tackled the cancer together.
When Julia went to her chemo treatments, Botle was by her hospital bed.
When the side effects of the chemo were taking their toll on Julia’s body, Botle was there.
When Julia finally had to go bald, Botle was there going bald too.
The hair loss was probably one of the hardest things to go through, because like most women, the two friends love their hair. Whilst the chemo left Julia with no choice in the matter, Botle did it out of her purpose to support her friend: “I thought: I can’t take chemo for you but I can cut my hair. It was the only way for me to make her feel like we were doing this together, and this way she wouldn’t have to worry about not having hair because I didn’t have hair.”
Ironically, Botle’s source of strength and motivation to be Julia’s guardian angel was Julia herself: “She made it easy. I thought I’d lose her and the fun. I thought our lives would change. But to my surprise she was fine and people were shocked when I would tell them that.” Julia confirms this when she says: “I definitely had more ups than downs.”
As strong as she was, Julia admits that there were times when it was hard to put on her positive persona: “It’s not easy being young, having goals and wanting to go for them and then having this thing come in and stop everything.”
There were often times when she felt bitter because she had done nothing to deserve this slap in the face. She had always been a good girl who strived to excel in her education and career. She made it a point to stay out of trouble and had her life all planned out, but even that didn’t protect her from the claws of this thing that tried to break her: “I told myself I won’t be that girl that falls pregnant at school or any time before a job, and then this thing comes and it’s like: oh now you can’t have kids.”
Through the bitterness, pain, anger, confusion and fear, she became the phoenix that rose above the ashes and can now look back and say: “Getting cancer was one of the best things to happen to me. I rediscovered myself and life in general, and I also got to see who my friends were. I wouldn’t take it back.”
Julia’s victory inspired everyone around her, especially the friend that fought with her from the very first day that a war was declared. Today Botle not only has Julia back in tact, but she also walked away with inspiration that has improved her own life for the better: “I look at life differently now; Julia made me feel like I can get through anything.”
Julia’s resilience also gave cancer a new face: “People have this stereotype of people suffering from it being frail and bald, so I just feel like it’s packaged wrong,” she says. Botle recalls how Julia had her bad days: “…But whenever we went out she brought it,” she says of her friend proudly.
Over and above everything that Botle did for Julia during the time she had cancer, she also taught her valuable lessons about the beautiful gesture of kindness: “I think I can be more considerate because of her, and be a nicer person because of her. I can reciprocate all the things that she was to me.” A large part of Julia’s healing processing was influenced by the support of her friend: “I don’t think I would have gone through this chemo as well as I did if it wasn’t for her. I didn’t think she would do it for six months straight but she did; she was there for every treatment and didn’t complain. It was my first time being in a situation where someone puts their life on hold for me every day, consistently.”
Breast cancer took Julia and Botle on a journey that made them stronger and wiser as individuals, which in turn made their friendship that much stronger.
Today Julia is the ambassador of Look Good Feel Better, and is actively involved in campaigns on cancer awareness. Now that she has a more care-free outlook on life, she’s relieved that that she’s no longer in a 9-5 work environment.
Through her new found strength and health, Botle is still by her side and the fight with cancer has been replaced with a stronger will to live by both friends.