South Africa: “Cancer is a word, not a sentence”

Astrid’s fierce fight with Stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer.  – Astrid Cay, bubbly and vivacious, never expected the lump she felt one morning would turn out to be breast cancer. Despite the earth-shattering news, she picked herself up and faced her diagnosis head on. Four years later and celebrating the big 4-0, Astrid is cancer-free and loving life.

Astrid Cay

Astrid Cay

As Astrid likes to say, her breasts have always been a hot topic. Thanks to early development, they were always an asset she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Then, in her mid-20s, they became the source of nourishment and comfort for her new born baby boy. “That was the very first time I looked at my breasts with love and not something I needed to be shy of or embarrassed about,” says Astrid.

Of course, it would be just her luck that when she finally started feeling comfortable in her own skin, it would be this very part of her that would knock her world out of balance.

On 1 April 2011, just like any other morning, Astrid woke up to a blaring alarm. After hitting the snooze button more than a dozen times, she finally got up and started getting ready. Reaching for her toothbrush, she felt a sharp pain as her left arm rubbed against her breast.

Doing a quick self-examination, Astrid felt a lump in her breast – and it hurt. “I had remembered hearing somewhere that cancer lumps don’t hurt and don’t move. At the time, those words were my comfort.” Despite this, she still booked an appointment with her GP to get it looked at.

After a visit to her doctor and the diagnosis of an abscess, she was put on a two-week course of antibiotics. The medication helped with the pain, but the lump didn’t subside. This was when her thoughts started wandering. Was it maybe cancer?

Just to make sure that everything was okay when the lump didn’t go away, Astrid’s GP sent her for further testing. After a mammogram, she was sent for a biopsy. Finally, she would have the answers – stage 2 breast cancer.

“As the doctor gave me the news, my husband held my hand so tight, I think he was trying to hold his composure more than he was comforting me because at that moment, our world fell apart. I cried and cried all the way to the car but I knew that I needed to pull myself together before facing my kids and my parents. I had to put on those dreaded big girl panties – well, a few layers of them actually!”

Due to the location of the lump, Astrid didn’t have to undergo a mastectomy. On 5 May 2011, she had her planned lumpectomy. The operation went well and she made good recovery. Unfortunately she was unable to start the second stage of her recovery (chemotherapy) as she had to get her gall bladder removed.

On 26 June 2011, Astrid had her first visit with her oncologist to discuss the treatment plan. Her world came crashing down once again – although the original scan showed she was in stage 2, she was, in fact, in stage 3, and was HER2-positive. This type of breast cancer is particularly aggressive[i] and requires a more targeted type of treatment[ii].

Her chemotherapy started at the end of June and it was not pretty. She lost all her hair and her nails and skin darkened. Thankfully she didn’t experience any of the nausea or vomiting that usually comes hand in hand with it. After her chemotherapy cycle, she went onto HER2-targeted therapy.

HER2-targeted therapy ensures that the HER2 cancer cells are no longer stimulated to grow. It also helps the body’s immune system, destroy the breast cancer cells[iii].

Astrid’s oncologist took the time to explain what HER2-targeted therapy involved and how it would benefit her. “Your thoughts are all over the place and half the information you don’t even take in!” Luckily, she received all the reading material she needed to understand what her HER2 diagnosis meant and what the treatment would entail.

Soon after being on the HER2-targeted therapy, Astrid started feeling her old self again. Her energy levels improved, she was in a better mood, her hair started growing and her skin colour went back to normal. “Before this, I started to look and feel like a monster,” she jokes. Overall, she had a very positive experience when it came to her targeted therapy, with very little, if any, unpleasant side effects.

Radiotherapy was a breeze. For her, this was one of the nicer parts of her treatment because she could take her kids along with her so they could see what was happening and that mommy was going to be okay.

“What have I learnt? Cancer is not just cancer – it has a type, a grade and then you need to find out if you’re HER2-positive or not. All this affects your treatment plan. Next, do your self-checks, have your regular checks done with your doctors and study your medical aid benefits. This is important if you want the best treatments available to you. But most of all…I have learnt that cancer is a word, not a sentence,” says Astrid.

Astrid Cay is an ambassador for Be Cancer Aware. For more information about breast cancer, the Think Beyond Pink campaign and Astrid herself, visit or join the Be Cancer Aware Facebook page.

[i] Roche. Background information: HER2-positive breast cancer. [PDF booklet] p.1. Available at: [Accessed 19 Sep. 2014].

[ii], (2014). Breast cancer facts | Breast Cancer Care. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Sep. 2014].

[iii] Breast Cancer Care | Breast cancer facts.