Fully committed to her role as a mother, breast cancer survivor and road safety activist, Zoleka Mandela believes her life is a story that will change many lives. The unexpected and tragic loss of two of her children -- Zenani Mandela (June 11, 2010) and Zenawe Mandela (June 23, 2011) surpassed her early breast cancer diagnosis (March 15, 2012) catapulting her from a journey of pain and struggle to hope, faith and inspiration. As a product of two legendary icons: former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela and freedom fighter Winnie Mandela, Zoleka’s social responsibility is tremendously inspired by her grandparents and their passion to bring about change. We are lucky to have her answer a few questions for us.
Humor Beats Cancer: Describe how cancer became a part of your life and at what age.
Zoleka Mandela: I was first diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2012, at the age of 32 and was later re-diagnosed at the age of 36, in 2016. I didn’t know I had breast cancer and was in denial for a very long time. I had prematurely given birth to my son in 2011, who passed on two days after his birth. About nine months after his burial, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I first discovered a lump in my breast, I assumed that the lump was due to the medication my doctor had prescribed to dry up my milk supply as I could not breast feed my son. It was only after the lump became two lumps that I went for a mammogram, by that time, my entire breast felt completely different to the other.
HBC: What is your role now in the cancer community?
ZM: I began documenting my journey with cancer, with child loss and addiction, during the days I was receiving 16 cycles of chemotherapy over a course of six months, it was in between those treatments that I wrote my autobiography ("When Hope Whispers"), which was later published in 2013. I wanted my story to be about what others stand to gain and not my losses i.e, my breasts due to a bilateral mastectomy, my fertility due to chemotherapy and my aftercare treatment (Zoladex and Femara), the loss of two of my children who passed on in 2010 and in 2011, and my addiction to illegal drugs and alcohol. It was important to me to remain the voice of those who have been rendered powerless by the ills and injustices of society. Also, somehow the world is programmed to think that coming from the Mandela family makes you immune to cancer, so I use the platform that being a Mandela has afforded me to make a contribution to the cancer community.
HBC: What has cancer taught you?
ZM: I breastfed two of my oldest children for two years each and after my bilateral mastectomy, I was quite pained about not being able to breast feed my fourth child that I birthed in 2014. One of the lessons that cancer taught me is that losing my breasts does not make me less of a woman, less of a mother and that there are so many ways that I can create stronger bonds with my children. Being a woman is more than aesthetics, it has very little to do with breasts and hair but more about how you see yourself on the inside and accepting yourself, no matter what you look like on the outside.
HBC: Share a funny story from your cancer journey.
ZM: My medical oncologist warned me that after my, “Red Devil,” treatment, my hair would start falling off. I remember going to the bathroom one day after, and realizing that chemotherapy had given me a Brazillian wax, my pubic hair had all fallen off and landed in my toilet -- LOL!!! I have never laughed so much! I also burst into laughter each time I remind people that I haven’t had nipples since 2012, especially when I’m asked whether I’m still breast feeding. What I find so hilarious is they’re reaction -- they never know what to do with themselves.
HBC: What have you learned from your grandparents that you used to deal with cancer?
ZM: I know I say this all the time but what they have always taught me is that despite our own challenges in life or whatever obstacle we may encounter, that we always have the power within ourselves to better the lives of those less privileged than we are. I have beaten cancer twice because of privilege, I have birthed two of my children (one after my first diagnosis in 2012 and the other after my second diagnosis in 2016) because of privilege, I have embryos and eggs at a fertility clinic that I have never had to use because of privilege. The reality is that even in the 21st Century, we live in a world where many women continue to suffer as a result of the gaps in healthcare. The reality is that many of them don’t have access to timely diagnosis and treatment because of who they are, where they live and who society deems them to be.