Belles Stories » Eileen van Helden
I’m a molecular biologist in Biomedical Sciences, Stellenbosch University.We work on finding the genes that make some people more susceptible to tuberculosis – a big problem in the Western Cape.
I was just wrapping up a major project in September 2004 when I noticed a lump and had it checked out. It still didn’t show up on the mammogram, but the radiologist doing the ultrasound said “this doesn’t look benign!”. I was convinced he had to be wrong. My life will always be divided into before and after the breast cancer diagnosis. It was of course a huge shock, as I had no real risk factors and had always thought of myself as very healthy. On the same day I had the surgeon phone me at work to say that the biopsy was malignant, and thirty minutes later, the vice-dean came to tell me that I had been made associate professor. It felt quite surreal. I put off surgery for 5 days so I could go to my son’s 21st. My daughter bought me waterproof mascara for the occasion, but I had a great party. Then started the roller-coaster ride of mastectomy, 6 months of chemotherapy, surgery to put in a port, and 5 weeks of radiation.
I tried life as a blonde in my new wig, but didn’t have that much more fun, so decided to stick with homeboy hats and scarves for comfort. Just when the ride was going smoothly, I had a dangerous infection in the port, which led to lung problems, so had surgery again to remove the port. It had made me feel bionic, and seriously restricted my summer wardrobe, so I was glad to see it go. From being perfectly happy to donate blood at any time for my own research, I became totally needle-shy. I have now almost finished a year on Herceptin, and hope it lives up to its hype. I hate the expression “fighting against cancer”. We all do our best, but in the end it comes down to luck.
Apart from my family (hubby, two kids just left the nest), my science, and now dragonboating, my passions are hiking and conservation, and I’m an Honorary Ranger for SANParks. Being out in nature puts everything in the right perspective, and at long last I feel as though I have some energy. This last year or two has taught me a lot – that with love and support one can get used to almost anything – even wearing pink.