SPAR Women's Challenge

‘There is life after cancer’

Yolanda Bukani‚ 29‚ has beaten lymphoma and is now the face of the Igazi Foundation’s Marrow Masakhane campaign

Cancer survivor Yolanda Bukani does not take her health for granted
Cancer survivor Yolanda Bukani does not take her health for granted
Image: Leon Hugo

Apart from her career in PR for the Southern Kings rugby team, a passion for modelling and being mom to seven-year-old cricket fan Jody, cancer survivor Yolanda Bukani‚ 29‚ is also the face of the Igazi Foundation’s Marrow Masakhane campaign


YOLANDA’S JOURNEY

IN 2007 I had noticed there was a lump growing under my armpit and I had gone to see my GP but it was misdiagnosed.

Every year I noticed the lump did not go away even though the doctor told me not to worry.

It was only in 2012 when I got very, very sick, I had night sweats and my mom got worried so I went to the doctor and then went for a second and a third opinion.

I had a biopsy and they found I had lymphoma – that is a cancer of the blood – and mine had showed up in my glands.

I was very scared because at the time I was finishing my under-grad degree at Rhodes University and although I had heard of cancer, it didn’t really sink in what a big impact it would make in my life.

It was only when my mom started crying in the doctor’s room that I realised it was very serious.

My mom started crying in the doctor's room ... It was very difficult for my family

I was also very scared because I had a baby – my son was only 11 months old at the time.

It was very difficult for my family. I come from a rural area – Alice – so the moment I was diagnosed and I went to tell my grandmother she was very, very scared. Fortunately the whole community, my church, everyone, came together.

I was the first person in the village that people knew about who had got cancer so people were like, “No, Yolanda’s young”. They also were saying cancer is not a Xhosa disease.

It’s very scary how in the Xhosa culture if you get diagnosed with cancer, people come to you and say “you know, it’s witchcraft”.

It helped that I come from a family who prayed a lot and so I had my faith, a strong family and a community who were fighting for me – I never went through cancer alone, the whole village of Alice was there for me. Church leaders came to visit me in PE in hospital and that really helped.

THAT WAS THEN: Yolanda spent a lot of time in isolation due to her weak immune system
THAT WAS THEN: Yolanda spent a lot of time in isolation due to her weak immune system

What was difficult was that during my course of treatment I missed a lot of my child’s growing up. I couldn’t see Jody for a long time because my immune system was very weak.

It was very difficult, being a student, having treatment and not being able to be around my baby because of the low immune system.

I had to come all the way from Grahamstown to PE for chemotherapy and then I had to go to Pretoria for the stem cell transplant.

I had a vac job at Laserteq Security Systems and they would drive me to PE for the treatment – they also paid for my flights to Pretoria and are still very supportive.

Because I had Stage 4 cancer where 80% of my bone marrow had cancer, I had to have a room by myself during treatment. You are very alone.

The Rhodes law faculty was also great, as I even had to write some of my legal theory exams in isolation but I managed to finish my B Soc Sci.

Yolanda Bukani's treatment was spread over nearly two gruelling years
Yolanda Bukani's treatment was spread over nearly two gruelling years

Treatment took about a year and a half and then Dr (Niel) Littleton told me I was in remission and ready for the transplant.

Unfortunately when I was in Pretoria for my transplant the doctors saw my cancer had come back and I had to come back to the Eastern Cape for another five months of treatment.

What kept me going was knowing I had a young child and I had to fight for him.

I wanted Jody to have a chance to get to know his mother
Yolanda Bukani

I wanted Jody to have a chance to get to know his mother. (He is now turning seven, in Grade 1, at Grey Junior and he just loves cricket, he’s so active!)

But also through my whole journey I always felt that God had chosen me to have cancer for a reason.

Perhaps I had to go through this to be able to help other people and that is what I am doing now.

It started when I took part in the Igazi Foundation’s fundraiser in 2015, and then last year when I modelled the showstopper for designer Jason Kieck, people suggested I try modelling.

I took up modelling to show all “the bald and the beautiful” people that there is life after cancer. You can lose your hair, not have eyebrows.

As a young woman it is really hard to walk around bald, but I want to show all of those patients lying in hospital that there is life after cancer.

When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer I didn’t know much about it and there are a lot of people who don’t know. We have this thing that “I’m young, I’m healthy, I won’t get sick” – so now I use my experiences to educate others.

I am now a motivational speaker so I attend a lot of functions to speak and share my story.

I’m also an ambassador for the Igazi Foundation and the face of the Marrow Masakhane campaign, which is a campaign to educate black people to donate bone marrow.

We go into communities where I share my story and tell people how to live a healthy life, keep fit, eat healthy food and to do everything in moderation.

Life is short, you need to live it while you still can.

THIS IS TODAY: Yolanda Bukani, 29, and her son Jody Tarr, who turns 7 on April 30
THIS IS TODAY: Yolanda Bukani, 29, and her son Jody Tarr, who turns 7 on April 30
Image: Gillian McAinsh

It has taught me to live a healthy life and always give back.

I’ve registered an NGO, the Yolanda Bukani Foundation, to give back to the rural areas andto help people who don’t know anything about cancer.

Cancer has taught me to be strong, to enjoy life and to appreciate the people I have in my circle. It has humbled me and made me a people’s person – it made me want to go back to where I grew up and try and help people.

I am proud to say I went through cancer – I had cancer, but cancer didn’t have me.

“I had cancer but cancer didn’t have me” – how young mom Yolanda Bukani survived lymphoma and is thriving today.

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