“My breasts were so big I couldn’t even see my tummy.”
When the doctor told her that the cancer on her breasts had grown to the extent that she had to have her breasts removed, she was so happy, it was a blessing in disguise for her. For many women, being diagnosed with breast cancer would be a devastating experience, especially when faced with the reality of losing both breasts.
But when Camilla Neelse was told her cancer was so advanced, she’d need a double mastectomy, to get both her breasts removed, she whispered “hallelujah”.
Camilla told DRUM that hasn’t been able to find a bra that fits in more than 18 months. The last bra she could wear was a 40JJ, and her breasts are now too large for that too. The size and weight of her breasts have burdened her shoulders, back, and knees which are in constant agony, from carrying the abnormal load. Now she’s happily looking forward to having the breasts removed.
Camilla (37) isn’t taking lightly the health hazard posed by breast cancer. She is quite aware the illness accounts for 16% of cancer deaths among women in South Africa. However, she said having both her breasts removed is her only hope of living a normal life. She was bedridden when DRUM visited her at home in Kimberley in the Northern Cape last year on the 8th of November 2018.
Being stuck at home and having to rely on her husband, Nazeem Neethling (34), and the couple’s 11-year-old son took a toll on her but when the publication spoke to her on the phone, following the news of having her breasts removed, she sounded so happy.
“I was in a dark place. You get depressed and you don’t see a way out.
“Now I walk short distances – my husband and son help me. I refuse to use a wheelchair. What if I never get up from it again?
“I’ll be getting my life back in early September.
“At last I can look to the future. I can see the light at the end of this thing,” she said.
Many women view their breasts as a symbol of their femininity, but Camilla’s have made her life a living hell.
She had tried getting breast-reduction surgery, but to no avail.
“My medical aid refused to pay for the operation. I’ve tried everything and argued with them many times, but nothing helped,” she told the magazine last year.
Camilla once visited a government hospital with her problem but was turned away and told that she was too overweight for an operation. She then shifted her hope on a Johannesburg-based plastic surgeon who after reading her story, offered to do her breast-reduction surgery for free.
“We went to see her in January, but it cost us R20 000 just to be in Johannesburg, for the week. I couldn’t afford travelling there anymore,” she said.
Early in August, she went for a routine mammogram and was diagnosed with cancer. She was told that the tumour was about 1cm in diameter, and located deep in the breast tissue. Camilla, used to work as a receptionist, was declared medically unfit to work, so has been home since October last year.
Her former employer still pays her and her family’s medical aid contributions, and her medical aid will be paying for her double mastectomy. Her breasts began growing eight years ago when she was pregnant with their son. “My breasts were so big I couldn’t see my tummy,” she recalled.
Camilla, weighs 130kg, and says the size of her breasts makes it impossible to exercise.
“Sometimes people will say things like I’m just lazy or I need to get off my fat ass. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to,” she said.
Gigantomachia isn’t her only issue. She also suffers from osteoporosis, sleep apnoea and fibromyalgia, an extremely painful condition. She also has type 2 diabetes and endometriosis – but it’s her breasts that keep her awake at night.
“I don’t sleep, I can’t,” she said.
She’s grateful to her husband for his unwavering support. The couple has been married for five years and Nazeem had to quit his job as a petrol station manager to take care of Camilla full time. Nazeem and their son wash and dress her. She also needs help to go to the toilet.
“At least I can wash my own face. I keep my hair short so I can manage it myself,” she said.
Her husband has always been her pillar of strength. “When we got the cancer diagnosis, I did worry that he might not want me anymore – he married a woman with large breasts. But he told me he married me for the person I am, not for my breasts,” she went on.
She woud love to have breasts reconstruction surgery someday. However, Nazeem is afraid her breasts will start growing again, and is against her idea of wanting to have a breasts reconstruction surgery.
“I liked my breasts before they started getting so big. They’re a part of my identity and someday I might want reconstructive surgery, but my husband says no. He doesn’t want to hear it,” she said.
Camilla is eagerly waiting to have her load removed, and having quality time with her son. “To not have to carry the heavy load . . . Oh Lord, I’m so looking forward to it.
“Everything’s been about me and that’s not right. I’ve promised him after the operation I’ll play with him and we’ll do things as a family,” she said.
Prior to the pregnancy that changed her life, Camilla used to dance and teach dancing. “I want to teach dance classes again. They’ve asked me to teach jazz dance at the community centre. As soon as I’m able, I want to,” she said with hope beaming in her eyes.
In 2018, Camilla launched Gigantomachia South Africa, an organisation to raise awareness about the condition. Her hope is also to become a motivational speaker after her mastectomy. But first she needs some physiotherapy exercises because her back had to work overtime due to her heavy breasts.
“For the first time I have real hope. My psychologist and Nazeem were worried about how I’d take the [cancer] diagnosis but I can’t stop smiling. One of these days I’ll be my old self again,” she said.
“Then it’s my turn to do everything for Nazeem. I want to spoil him because I couldn’t have asked for a better husband. “I’m so grateful,” added Camilla.