Teen fought leukaemia – and has ‘bald’ photos to prove it

COURAGEOUS PAIR: Vicky Gerber and her daughter Rochelle Momberg, who overcame Burkitt’s lymphoma leukaemia
COURAGEOUS PAIR: Vicky Gerber and her daughter Rochelle Momberg, who overcame Burkitt’s lymphoma leukaemia

As the world marked World Cancer Day earlier this week, Weekend Post spoke to two remarkable young survivors who tell their tales

Not many people have the guts to model after losing all their hair, and when that person is a 14-year-old girl the courage it takes is even more remarkable.

But, as schoolgirl Rochelle Momberg discovered, beating a frightening disease gives you the courage to do just about anything.

The brave Framesby High student, who is in Grade 10, this week told her stor y, which started as she entered high school in 2013 laid low with a mystery illness.

“I started getting lower back pain in December 2012. I was getting ready for high school and busy covering my books.

“My mom took me to the doctor several times and I got a lot of Voltaren injections,” she said.

“I was getting worried,” her mom Vicky Gerber said. “She is not sickly or a child who complains about every little ache and pain.”

Gerber started taking her daughter to physiotherapy – but nothing helped.

“I think we went to the doctor eight or 10 times,” she said.

Meanwhile Rochelle was constantly tired and covered in inexplicable bruises. She also developed a rash on her back.

Then on the Sunday before school was due to start Rochelle declined a shopping trip because she was not feeling well.

“That was when I put my foot down and took her to the doctor again. Blood tests they did showed that her platelet levels were extremely low,” Gerber said. Paediatrician Dr Johann Beukes then admitted her to Greenacres Hospital, where she stayed for a few days while having more tests.

“My poor child’s arms were blue from all the needles,” Gerber said.

Rochelle also needed a bone marrow biopsy.

On January 14 2012 she was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Doctors found cancer in her blood, her bone marrow and her ovaries.

“On the day I was supposed to start high school my mom and I flew to Cape Town and I was admitted to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital.

“For the next few months I slept in a La-Z-Boy boy chair next to Rochelle’s bed,” Gerber said.

“It was quite an adjustment for my back when I started sleeping in a bed again.”

Rochelle needed intensive chemotherapy for a short period to fight the specific type of cancer she had. She was placed under the care of one of the country’s experts in paediatric cancers, Prof Alan Davidson.

A few difficult months followed for Rochelle. Her hair fell out after her first chemotherapy session.

Eventually she asked her grandfather to shave her head.

Rochelle also underwent 10 extremely painful lumbar punctures.

Gerber did her best to keep her daughter happy in the little corner of the Red Cross Hospital which had become their temporary home.

“I know it sounds silly but we always tried to coordinate pajamas and scarves and towels so Prof Davidson would come and have a look in the morning to ask what the fashion colour of the day was!” Gerber said.

After four months Rochelle’s cancer was in remission and by the third quarter of 2012 she went to high school for the very first time.

When she arrived at school, wearing a wig, she found all her classmates, heads covered in scarves and caps, waiting to welcome her back.

Rochelle finished her whole Grade 8 curriculum in just four months and passed at the end of the year.

“When Prof Davidson came to tell me I was in remission, it was the best news I ever received,” she said.

“Before cancer I was a very shy person. But when the South African Blood Service approached me to be their ambassador in Port Elizabeth, I agreed.

“For the first time in my life I had to talk in front of a whole lot of people,” she laughed.

While she was in Cape Town, Reach for a Dream organised a photoshoot for her as it had always been a goal for her to be a model.

“When the photographer suggested that we do some ‘bald’ shots, she agreed and the pictures were beautiful,” Gerber said.

Rochelle is still pursuing her modelling interests and in between photoshoots and school she makes the time to go and visit and take gifts to the children hospitalised with cancer at Dora Nginza Hospital.

She also goes and says hello to her “Greenacres Hospital family”.

“Everybody at the hospital was so good to me,” she said. “I go to visit them every now and again.”

-Estelle Ellis

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