Marizka Coetzer
Journalist
3 minute read
11 Mar 2022
5:30 am

Two survivors prove that leukaemia is not a death sentence

Marizka Coetzer

Public urged to give blood and sign up to donate bone marrow.

Martin Van Der Westhuizen, right, whose cancer is in remission, poses for a photograph with his wife Jolinda at the Netcare Olivedale Hospital, 10 March 2022, at a special patient care day to celebrate cancer survivors and patients. Picture: Michel Bega

Blood cancer is not a death sentence: that was the message behind the blood drive and patient care day at the haematology department at the Netcare Olivedale hospital.

On Thursday, the haematology department celebrated their survivors to create further awareness for blood cancer and bone marrow transplants.

The three main types of blood and bone marrow cancer are leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. A practice therapist, Pieter le Roux, said the department had a patient care facility where they offered counselling and therapy, not just for the patients but for their families too.

The SA bone marrow registry was present to sign up donors. “There are so many myths around donating bone marrow,” said Le Roux.

cancer care
Head Clinical Haematologist Dr Karen Gunther speaks to The Citizen at the Netcare Olivedale Hospital, 10 March 2022, at a special patient care day to celebrate cancer survivors and patients. Picture: Michel Bega

“Basically, on the day of the harvesting, the donor’s blood is circulated through a system that split the stem cells from the blood and returns the donor’s blood.”

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Le Roux said it was nothing like a procedure where the bone marrow was extracted.

“It is a very hard job but it is very fulfilling. When people get the bad news, it feels like a death sentence, but we help patients see there is hope.”

Martin van der Westhuizen was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2020 when he suddenly developed a sore. Initially, a specialist thought Van der Westhuizen had gout or rheumatism. After he suffered a blood clot in his lung, he was sent for tests that led to his diagnosis.

“They told me I had two options, either three months left to live or chemo and a bone marrow transplant.”

Van der Westhuizen was fortunate to have two matches, one locally and one from Germany.

“By October 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, I had the transplant.

“I was alone in the hospital and there were days where I didn’t know if I would make it through the day,” he said.

He underwent about four chemotherapy sessions before reaching remission. His wife Jolinda said it has been a year and five months since the transplant and “every day is a blessing”.

She said the first 100 days after the transplant was the biggest milestone.

“The recovery after the first 100 was critical. But we also celebrated the first year of remission and his first birthday.”

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Jolinda said although they were shocked at first, she never doubted her husband would recover.

“Without faith, we would have never survived this.”

blood donor
Nurse Phuti Chokoe hands over a SANBS gift to a blood donor at the Netcare Olivedale Hospital, 10 March 2022, at a special patient care day to celebrate cancer survivors and patients. Picture: Michel Bega

The couple urged the public to donate blood and sign up to donate bone marrow because it could mean the difference between life and death. Head clinical haematologist Dr Karen Gunter said the difficult part of her job was going through the whole journey with the patient.

“It was also the blessing, not just when they’re cured. It’s a special job to have,” she said.

Gunter, who has been working in haematology for 15 years, said her job still brings her to tears.

“You can always make a difference for someone, not just in curing but in caring,” Gunter said.

marizkac@citizen.co.za