It happened in May 2021, devastation in the middle of a global crisis. It was the size of a marble, hidden in the cleavage of my mom’s breasts; she thought it was a cyst. It wasn’t. What followed was endless cycles of doctors’ appointments and every scan, X-ray, and -ogram known to man. All of which she had to endure alone because of the pandemic and social distancing protocols. It was not all bad news; there was only one tumour and no spreading; it was the best-case scenario for getting breast cancer.
However, I have recently learned that cancer is not something to be taken lightly, even if caught early. An aggressive approach was taken. The lump was surgically removed, followed by two rounds of different chemotherapy drugs and concluding in radiation therapy. The tumour was successfully removed, so began the dreaded chemotherapy, the first drug known as “The Red Devil,” to be administered every three weeks for five months.
Now chemotherapy works because it basically “destroys” all fast-growing or fast replicating cells – which is the very nature of cancer. However, there are many fast-generating cells in the body, such as hair, which ceases to grow once one has begun chemotherapy. Another fast-generating cell found in the body is the white blood cells, yes, the immune system soldiers. Many chemo patients become immunocompromised during their therapy for this reason. Obviously, this is not ideal in the current global situation.
See, my mom is caught in a bit of a Catch 22; she has a severely weakened immune system putting her at risk of becoming seriously ill was she to catch the Virus or potentially any other illness. But being immunocompromised also meant that she could not get the Vaccine. Essentially my family and I had to prevent my Mom from getting the disease at all costs whilst still enduring the chemo. I wasn’t allowed to visit home for quite some time… See; having a full-time job where I interacted with many people put me at high risk for contracting the Virus, so visiting my Mom was a health and safety concern. I understood this; at this point, she was more at risk of becoming a victim of the pandemic than a victim of Cancer.
I started praying and begging for the vaccine to become available to my age group. All of my fears and doubts about the vaccine were completely obliterated at the thought of being able to visit my Mom again without wondering if I was putting her life at risk.
My mom is one of the thousands of people that find themselves in a similar situation, not only fighting cancer but trying to avoid catching a highly contagious viral infection that has brought the world to a standstill. It’s a little ironic; I want to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
But enough of this sad and soppy story; let’s get to the facts, shall we? The Cancer Society of South Africa estimates that approximately 77 000 people get diagnosed with cancer each year in South Africa. This is almost as many people have died in SA due to the pandemic thus far.
However, cancer is also not the only disease that can bring about immunodeficiency in people. As many of you would know, HIV is one of the biggest immunocompromising diseases out there- one which South Africans are very familiar with. It is estimated that currently, 13.1 % of South Africans have HIV, which is roughly 7 671 360 people.
There are also other diseases known as autoimmune diseases that weaken the immune systems of people. It is estimated that around 4 million people in South Africa have an autoimmune disease or disorder. These are not the only diseases but the most common. In total, we are looking at 11 748 360 or 20 % of people in South Africa that have compromised immune systems and thus cannot receive the vaccine.
Please do not misunderstand me. I did not write this piece to try a guilt trip you into getting the vaccine. I want to provide another point for consideration for those in doubt of whether to get the vaccine or not. I firmly believe that everyone should have the right to choose for themselves. Still, I also believe in the value of making a fully informed and socially responsible decision, and I think this is an aspect that has been widely overlooked when it comes to the vaccine debate.
I understand that there are many factors to consider when deciding to get the vaccine or not. All I ask is that you use all the information available to you because at least you are given a choice, unlike my mom.
Contributor: Lexi Burling (Pseudo name)
BSc and honours degree specialising in environmental sciences as well as soil and water chemistry.