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Facing up to cancer

By January 15, 2016May 11th, 2018No Comments

February 4 is World Cancer Day

You’ve Earned It shares the experiences of Les Phillips, a retiree who has fought the Big C
and who now helps others to win back their lives

Les Phillips – at the Annual Celebration of Life

Les Phillips – at the Annual Celebration of Life

A few years after retirement, at the beginning of 2006, I was asked by CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa to manage a major fundraising programme that kept me occupied 24/7 for three months with a large team of volunteers. Halfway through the project, I slipped and broke several ribs that refused to heal. At first it was thought that I had Borne Holme’s Disease – in spite of my protestations that I’d never been to Denmark or its islands. Six months after the ribs had broken, thanks to a consultant physician who arranged for me to have a bone marrow sample taken, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma or cancer of the bone marrow and blood.

My first reaction was one of relief; at last I knew what the problem was. This form of cancer not only gets at the blood but also the long bones and skull hence a weakness that easily allowed the rib bones to break. What added to my relief, was that my physician introduced me to a young oncologist who specialised in stem cell treatment and who reassured me that that he could get me into remission. That sounded a very good option as I didn’t fancy my skeleton crumbling away or the Myeloma spreading elsewhere. So the treatment started.

I was first put on Thalidomide. Yes, Thalidomide. Being born in 1940, I was well aware what Thalidomide, then prescribed for pregnant women experiencing morning sickness, did to the foetuses they were carrying. Tragically it resulted in babies with missing or deformed limbs. Although a banned drug, my oncologist explained that it had been discovered that it helped treat certain cancers.
Now comes the scary part. Elma, my wife, had to inject me daily in the stomach for a period to stimulate the stem cells. Seeing her approach me with that needle certainly stimulated me as well! But the injection was administered painlessly as though she had being doing it all her life. And with a large additional dose of love and care each time. When my oncologist was satisfied that he had sufficient stem cells I went into isolation at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre to have intensive chemotherapy to clean out my system.

Isolation was critical as the chemo meant that my immune system was compromised. I shaved my head beforehand; the chemo removed the remaining hair as well as causing certain discomfort. My oncologist explained that the body knew exactly where to place them. Far from feeling a ‘new man’, I was discharged and then had regular follow up chemo until 18 months later I was in remission. For a while!

Our CanAssist Support Team making refreshments for patients at a State hospital (Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital)

Our CanAssist Support Team making refreshments for patients at a State hospital (Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital)

At the beginning of 2010 after a very severe nose bleed I was diagnosed with a tumour in my sinus. The Multiple Myeloma had hidden away where it couldn’t be detected. Surgery could only remove 75% of it so I then had daily radiotherapy for over a month. Almost the same side effects as chemo, but I carried on working.

I am now back in remission and regularly count my blessings. Regular check-ups reassure us that all is well. We are also extremely thankful that there are oncologists and nursing staff like those who treated me. Really dedicated people who are able to bring so much hope.

A few years ago, I became associated with an organisation called CanSurvive which helps people cope with living with cancer. I was trained as a Cancer Buddy and now help those who need support.
We meet monthly as a group, survivors, both men and women, and caregivers, and give support to each other, particularly those recently diagnosed. The value of these support groups and having a caregiver cannot be over stressed. I wasn’t aware of the support group when I was diagnosed, but I was very fortunate to have Elma as my caregiver and without her, and all the medical support, I would not have got through it all.

Support Group – typical discussion at our Parktown monthly meeting

Support Group – typical discussion at our Parktown monthly meeting

I also found that a positive approach and a sense of humour, very much tested at times, helped. Cancer can be beaten in many cases.

I now find myself ‘counselling’ a friend who I met at University and who lives in Cardiff.  This I do by telephone (I have a phone card which gives a good rate). I am only too willing to do the same for any multiple myeloma patient or their families who feel the need for support from someone who has been through it. It does help.


NOTE: from CanSurvive

Les is still a valued member of our Cancer Buddies scheme as well as the life and soul of our meetings and events.

Anyone needing a Cancer Buddy for this, or any other type of cancer, is welcome to phone the help line – 0800 033 337 – or email

For more information on CanSurvive Groups or to subscribe to the VISION cancer e-newsletter, email




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