Stage 4 cancer patient lauds medical advances as they help her defy disease

Hannelie Snyman (56) from Johannesburg was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of eleven and after having been in remission for 34 years, doctors in 2011 discovered that she had developed stage-3 breast cancer. In 2016, she was given three years to live after the cancer metastised to stage four.

Hannelie Snyman (left) and her daughter, Petroné Krüger. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - A cancer patient has lauded advances in medical science that helped her in the fight against the disease.

Hannelie Snyman (56) from Johannesburg was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of eleven and after having been in remission for 34 years, doctors in 2011 discovered that she had developed stage-3 breast cancer.

Scientists at national research institute, iThemba LABS are aiming to improve cancer diagnostics and treatments to give people like Hannelie and thousands of others a greater chance of winning the fight against the debilitating disease.

ALSO READ: Inside iThemba LABS' research quest for better cancer diagnostics & therapies

Snyman explained that doctors back in 1976 told her that she was meant to be one of a pair of twins but the other embryo actually developed inside the ovary which caused it to become malignant.

"They then removed the ovary and sent everything away to Boston in America as those years in South Africa they didn't have the equipment to actually do all the necessary tests."

Snyman said that she then started a series of chemotherapy sessions.

Due to stress following her mother's passing, doctors in 2016 discovered that her breast cancer had metastasised in the left lung lining.

"I went through extensive chemo once again and it sort of kept it bay. They also told me that it was now stage 4 and the prognosis in 2016 was two to three years."

A visit to her oncologist in July revealed that due to Snyman contracting COVID-19 earlier this year, her immune system suffered a heavy blow, resulting in her cancer treatment becoming less effective.

This led to her developing cancer in the lymph nodes in her left armpit.

"Currently, the only medication they could give me was medication called Afinitor, which is not on any formulary on medical aid, so at this stage, I'm paying for my own meds and still going strong."

At iThemba LABS in Cape Town, postdoctoral fellow specialising in radiochemistry, Doctor Shankari Nair, explained that with targeted cancer therapy they were trying to refine radiopharmaceutical therapies that only targeted malignant cells and spare as much healthy tissue as possible.

"There's two types of finding a new molecule to make: one, you do a broad screen and you take the most promising small molecule - peptide, antibody, protein, aptamer - that you can find and then you start derivatising it or changing its functional groups so that you now have the most promising a molecule that can be used for targeted therapy for a particular type of cancer," Nair explained.

Professor Mike Sathekge, the head of nuclear medicine at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, is collaborating with these researchers on a "see it, treat it" approach for cancer.

"This is where you take a pairing of diagnostic biomarkers with a therapeutic agent that share a specific target in a diseased cell or tissue. So you use a certain marker that is really there to diagnose for treatment, so in that way you really are able to individualise your management of the disease, you are able to integrate the diagnostic and the therapeutic into one."

Nair said that they were also conducting studies on external beam radiation used to kill cancer cells with neutron therapy.

"Based on the speed at which you give the dose to the cell, so a high dose, about 400 milligray per minute, so you gave quite a high dose per minute versus a low dose rate, so you gave them about a 100 milligray per minute, all ionizing radiation induces DNA double-strand breaks and we are able to visualise the break under a microscope. The best type that you want is the double-strand break because when the double helix is broken it requires more repair factors and proteins to put both strands back together."

Snyman celebrated advances in this field of medicine as giving cancer patients a better chance at winning the battle against the disease.

She said that her faith and support from family and friends kept her motivated to keep on fighting.

"I try and hold on to that, that cancer is actually not a death threat, it's not a death sentence it's actually a passport, it's a passport for me to live the way I should have lived all my life - loving, caring, taking time off, looking after yourself. We don't do that as a rule, we plan our holidays three years in advance. Who says you're going to be there in three years? Why don't you just live for today and that's what it's taught me is to live for today, for here, for now."

The Cancer Association of South Africa has stressed the importance of early detection in the fight against cancer.

More than 15,000 new breast cancer and over 13,000 prostate cancer cases were diagnosed in South Africa last year.

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