Surviving cancer is a long journey, but for patients to have a fighting chance, early detection is crucial, writes Dr Louis Kathan, Chief Medical Officer – SA and Oncologist at Life Healthcare, with cancer survivor Kate Houliston.

Surviving cancer is often the culmination of a torrid journey of physical and emotional distress, an experience that is truly life changing. As an oncologist, being able to tell someone that they have survived cancer is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. But one has to go through a lot to reach that stage.

There are many published clinical journals with data that highlights that the best defence against cancer is early diagnosis. At Life Healthcare, we advocate for early detection which in many cases will result in a better prognosis and patient outcomes. In many cancer types, early detection and the right treatment often means improved survival rates.

A case in point was Kate Houliston, a patient treated at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital’s oncology unit, whose brain tumour was picked up while she was undergoing tests for symptoms likely unrelated. Kate was a 25-year-old master’s student at the time, about to head off to do a portion of her degree in India. Her flights were already booked when she got the life-changing news.

“I had been feeling unwell and was trying to get to the bottom of it,” she recalls. “Earlier tests had revealed a cyst on my brainstem. The physician thought that if the cyst had grown, it could possibly be causing my symptoms, and sent me for an MRI.”

We discovered Kate had a grade-two astrocytoma – a lower-grade brain tumour – on the left frontal lobe. If left untreated it would later turn into an aggressive cancer and grow rapidly. Kate was fortunate that it was discovered early.

Soon after the diagnosis, Kate underwent a craniotomy, which she jokingly describes as “a Grey’s Anatomy-inspired awake brain surgery”. However, post-operation imaging found a portion of the tumour remained. There were discussions about a second surgery, but we chose a less invasive, but a no less difficult route. Kate underwent six weeks of radiation, Monday through Friday, and then another six months of oral chemotherapy.

“It’s a long journey. It takes physical, emotional, and mental strength,” she says today. “However, because of how early the tumour was discovered, I had a positive prognosis. I had the gift of hope.”

“I would encourage those going through this, to celebrate every milestone,” says Kate. “It’s no small feat to get through your first cycle of chemo, so find the moments of happy and light along a journey that can feel so dark. Don’t wait to hear the words “stable disease” or “remission”, celebrate the good days in between and every milestone along the way. When you get to your last one, and you ring that bell, it’s the culmination of so many milestones,” says Kate.

Kate went through chemo during the Covid-19 pandemic, so human contact was limited. Besides the support she received from her friends and family, she relied heavily on the support of the nurses and doctors at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, where she also happens to have been born.

“On my last day of chemo, one of the sisters made a speech about how I’d been like a surfer paddling out into these massive waves, and that now, because I’d reached the end of my treatment, I could turn around and ride the wave back in. I was so grateful to everyone there. They make an unpleasant experience as joyful as possible. The people who work in oncology are special people.”

The importance of support on the cancer journey cannot be overstated. Patients appreciate being able to speak to cancer survivors, who have been through a similar experience. Kate has also seen the value of being part of a community of fighters and survivors.

“When I had no hair, there were a few special moments where people came up to me and shared encouraging stories of their loved ones. Almost everyone knows someone who has cancer, had cancer, or is going through treatment. It can feel lonely, but you are reminded that you’re not alone.

“The person I looked to for inspiration and motivation is my 11-year-old friend and neighbour who had leukaemia and is now in remission. She is my hero and one of the strongest people I know. I asked her for advice when I was going through radiation, and she wrote back and made posters for me which I stuck on my wall as colourful motivation,” says Kate.

When you ask how she plans to celebrate being a cancer survivor, Kate is reserved. “Truthfully, I’m just looking forward to waking up feeling okay and making the most of that day’s blessings,” she says.

As we emerge from two years of the Covid-19 pandemic and life slowly returns to relative normality, we can be forgiven for skipping our annual check-ups, or putting pre-emptive testing on the back burner. However, early screening is the best defense against a truly devasting illness.

Early diagnosis means that in many cases cancer can be beaten – Kate bears testament to that. At Life Healthcare, we are investing in the best technology, to ensure we can detect the disease as early and accurately as possible and provide the best, individualised treatment so our patients have the best chance of survival.

About Life College of Learning:
Established in 1998 with 10 bridging nursing students, the Life College of Learning today has seven learning centres countrywide with approximately 1000 students graduating annually. The Life College of Learning is registered as a Private Higher Education Institution with the Department of Higher Education and Training since 2008. It is also accredited as a Nursing Education Institution with the South African Nursing Council and accredited by the Council on Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training and affiliated to Nelson Mandela University. Life College of Learning is ISO9001:2015 certified: held to the highest standards of quality management.
Visit: https://www.lifehealthcare.co.za/careers/life-college-of-learning/

About Life Healthcare:
Life Healthcare is a global people-centred, diversified healthcare organisation listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Life Healthcare has over 38 years’ experience in the South African private healthcare sector, and currently operates 66 healthcare facilities in southern Africa. Services include acute hospital care, acute physical rehabilitation, acute mental healthcare, renal dialysis, and employee health and wellness services. The Group owns Alliance Medical Group, the leading independent provider of medical imaging services (MRI, CT and PET scans) within Europe, operating internationally across 10 countries. Life Molecular Imaging, a division of Alliance is an integrated pharmaceutical business that includes research and development laboratories, access to a network of cyclotrons and radio-pharmacies and imaging facilities, with Life Radiopharma being Alliance’s distributor of radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose many types of diseases. Visit: https://www.lifehealthcare.co.za/

About the Author:
Dr Louis Kathan is the Chief Medical Officer – South Africa for Life Healthcare. He obtained his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) degree from the University of Cape Town in 1994. In 1999, he completed an Executive MBA (Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, City University of New York) – graduating summa cum laude and was inducted to the international business honour society, Beta Gamma Sigma. He is a certified Clinical and Radiation Oncologist, graduating from the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa with a Fellowship in Radiation Oncology in 2007. In 2012, he completed an M.Sc. in Advanced Oncology (University of Ulm – Germany) and became a lecturer in the programme and a Masters’ thesis supervisor. In addition to holding consultant clinical and radiation oncology positions in both the government and private healthcare sectors for 15 years, as well as other diverse healthcare roles locally and internationally, he has also held various roles in financial institutions. Louis has presented locally and internationally and has been part of various panels and committees. He assumed the role of Business Lead – Oncology at Life Healthcare in 2019 focusing on the development and implementation of the oncology strategy for the Group. Dr Kathan was appointed to the Life Healthcare executive team in the role of Chief Medical Officer – SA in November 2022.

Issued by Ogilvy South Africa on behalf of Life Healthcare