Teen’s Journey To Beating Leukaemia

By Vanessa Papas: Chanel Wewege was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia at age 17 and having just finished Grade 10. At the time she couldn’t have imagined the path that lay ahead. Today Chanel is an inspiration for all children and teenagers affected by this deadly disease and living proof that with a little faith and a lot of courage you can overcome anything.

We brought you the inspiring story of Chanel shortly after her battle with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and the launch of her book, Leukemia Unveiled, which provides teens and young adults an honest and eye-opening account of what it’s like to go through cancer treatment.  A tale of faith, love and hope in the midst of a very trying time, the book is a must-read for anyone who is fighting cancer, as well as for those who are watching a loved one go through the journey.

Chanel explains her journey with cancer started early January of 2005. She start experiencing flu-like symptoms just before the end-of-year break. She’d wake up exhausted and the dizziness and headaches she’d been having just wouldn’t go away. Her mom made an appointment for her to see their family GP who attributed her symptoms to a run-down immune system and prescribed a course of antibiotics. A few days later Chanel blacked out while out at the mall. At that stage she’d also developed an indescribable and constant pain that resonated across her hip to the point where she could not stand up. She also suffered serious bleeding, bruising and unbearable back pain.

She was rushed to the Emergency Trauma Ward at Greenacres Hospital Port Elizabeth where a full blood count  revealed she had Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. It’s estimated Chanel had suffered from the disease for at least six months before finally being positively diagnosed. Three days later she was transferred to Tygerburg Hospital for a series of x-rays, C.T scans and sonars. Acute Myeloid Leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Overall AML is rare, accounting for 0.8 percent of all cancers diagnosed, at a rate of 3.7 per 100,000 of the population, and is usually found in adults over the age of 60. Chemotherapy is the main form of treatment for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.

“One of the most traumatic experiences for me was losing my hair,” Chanel says. “I knew it was going to happen, the doctors explained it to me. I guess I just didn’t want to accept it.

When your hair starts falling out, it means that the chemo is working its way through your body and killing off your cells. It makes you realise that what’s happening is real. It starts off slowly. I would wake up with little bits of hair on my pillow. I was developing a huge knot in my hair from lying down all the time. I wouldn’t let mom brush my hair, it’s was too sore. Eventually I had to cut my long thick hair all off. I got some bandanas to wear from the Sunflower Foundation and eventually learnt that time heals and got used to the fact that my hair was gone.

“At the beginning of my treatment I was told that I would need a bone marrow transplant so both my brothers were tested,” says Chanel. “The donor should preferably be a sibling or by some luck a cousin and it cannot be your parents. We were hoping and praying that the results would come back and one of my brothers would be a positive match. We would have to continue our search overseas if the results were negative. It turned out that my little brother Daine was 99.9 percent match. ”

While the family were elated over the news, Chanel was upset her brother, then aged nine, would have to be put through the process. She knew, however, that at the time he was her only hope.  Chanel had to wait until she was in full remission before she could have her transplant. Chanel spent an entire year at the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and continuous testing – a process that took an extreme toll on her body, whittling her down to a mere 35 to 40 kilograms. The treatment forced her to be isolated from others, as exposure to any germs could potentially overwhelm her severely strained immune system. The transplant was a success and in 2005, doctors announced Chanel’s cancer was in remission. Shortly after, Chanel put pen to paper and the result was the birth of her book Leukemia Unveiled

“My dad suggested that to cope I should write down my feelings and experiences each day,” she says. “This is how the book started. I wrote until I could not lift my hand anymore. Fast forward to my remission which took two years , I didn’t think twice about the pages I had poured my heart into all those painful days in hospital. I focused on learning to walk again. I started studying hairdressing as my aunt owns a salon. I never finished my studies. The whole experience was extremely traumatic and with it came an everlasting depression and anxiety. I wanted to help other young people diagnosed with the disease or similar to understand it better and I wanted to help! This is when I contacted SANB and started doing motivational talks for them. This satisfied my need to be an activist. In 2011 my dad was involved in a fatal freak accident at work. We were devastated; thinking how much more can one family endure. This was when my mom had a heart to heart talk with me and told me it was my dad’s wishes to one day get my book published. This is when I seriously started writing and searching for a publisher. It took me four years to write Leukaemia Unveiled because I had to keep going back to that dark place and it traumatised me all over again; but I did it and I am so proud.”

Recently Leukemia Unveiled was launched at Skoobs Theatre Of Books. “I did a very heart wrenching picture presentation as I wanted to capture the essence of being in hospital visually. There we many tears from the crowd. I proceeded to sing the song that I would sing in hospital during the difficult times: My Immortal by Evanescence. There was a massive silence as I sang followed by a roaring cheer at the end. I signed everyone’s copies and my guests left in good faith. I am very grateful to each and every person who attended and supported me.”

Chanel says she’s often asked by many young people fighting cancer how she coped with the treatment and what brought her through some of her darkest hours. “My biggest message to everyone out there is to always be aware of the disease and to know that it is a silent killer,” she says. “I want to encourage parents to please also have their children get blood test check-ups every six months at least. I believe that early detection is the key to one day solving this disease. Interestingly in South Africa most of the patients are from the Eastern Cape. We do not know how Leukaemia starts in the body or how it is triggered, but the only weapon we do have is to catch it early. It can happen to anyone and it affects everyone around you too. The scars are everlasting although they are not often vigilant to the eye.”

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