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Personal Story

The cancer warrior who connected a community



The world is holding its breath on hearing that heir to the British throne, Prince William’s, wife, Kate, has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, but we know receiving such a diagnosis is like being thrown into a storm with no shelter in sight.

But what happens when you’re not the one at the centre of the storm, but standing on the sidelines, watching seemingly powerlessly as someone you love battles the elements?

How do you cope knowing that your child will have to go through intense medical treatment, multiple hospital stays, surgeries, and never-ending poking and prodding? The honest answer is that you never accept it, but unfortunately, you learn to cope with this new way of life, and you fight with everything you have because there’s no alternative.

Our precious daughter, Devorah Leah, was diagnosed at the age of 33. Her kids were two and three years old at the time. She was always the sunshine of our family, her laughter echoing through our home like a melody. When she was diagnosed, it felt like the sun had suddenly been snuffed out, leaving us in darkness.

Devorah Leah, in her typical selfless manner, tried to shield us from the full extent of her struggle, putting on a brave face. But behind closed doors, I’m sure, the facade crumbled, revealing the raw pain and anguish she was trying so desperately to conceal. We were also trying to conceal our fear and uncertainty.

Her siblings and friends tried to be there for her in any way they could, offering words of comfort and acts of kindness to lift her spirits. But there were moments when we were unable to ease her suffering, which left us feeling helpless.

At the time of her illness, our family was struggling just to get through the day, just grappling for any form of hope, be it input from friends or family, supplements that may have been suggested, alternative treatments, or just kind words. When the focus of our day became just “keeping our daughter, sister, mother, and wife alive”, we would do anything and everything to do so, but it became overwhelming.

And then, at the moment when hope seemed distant, Devorah Leah initiated something that would change the lives of cancer warriors forever. She felt how overwhelmed she and her family had become, and believed that the existence of one place, one centre, to get everything one needs at this time, could help patient, family, and caregivers. It inspired the DL Link, a support group for individuals and families affected by cancer. It was Devorah Leah’s way of turning her pain into purpose, of reaching a hand to others who were walking a similar path.

Of course, when we were given the answer we didn’t really hope for, we knew this was what we now needed to do for our Devorah Leah.

As the mom of a cancer warrior, my way of coping was to hold on to my faith, to daven to Hashem every day, as I knew in my heart that whatever the outcome, it wasn’t up to us. The only thing I was in control of was what was in front of me at that time: five other kids – Devorah Leah’s siblings – to support, as well as her toddlers and her husband, who wasn’t able to focus completely on his job.

I had to stop working, and became a full-time caregiver, nurse, mother, and grandmother. I had to fight with the medical aid to pass certain procedures, deal with the doctors, and get second and third opinions, even from across the world, at the same time dealing with a difficult financial situation as there were so many extra expenses.

It was only my belief in G-d and my strong will to keep my family afloat that carried me through.

Years later, I heard how Andreas Efthymiou and his family were living on the quiet outskirts of Lusaka, when their tranquil existence was shattered when his wife, Avlon, noticed two worrying growths at the base of their son, Stelio’s, neck. This was back in December 2021.

What initially seemed innocuous soon spiralled into a nightmare as these small marble-sized balls swiftly expanded in size. The Efthymiou family passed through the corridors of six hospitals in Zambia within a fortnight, grappling with uncertainty and fear.

Andreas later told us that on 18 December that year, they received a phone call from the doctor saying that Stelio had cancer. “They urged us to go to South Africa right away,” he said. “So, on Monday, we packed up our lives, and by Tuesday morning, we were in South Africa – a story marked by love, resilience, and the cruel grasp of illness.”

“Our journey took an unexpected turn when Simone Lockstone, a dear friend from my work at a local real estate company, introduced us to DL Link. Simone spoke of DL Link with such reverence, describing its people as angels who walk among us, bringing solace and support to those in need.”

I recall how Stelio’s mom would remind him every day how brave and strong he was and, above all, loved. I could see how she gave him the courage to face his battles head on. I witnessed her overlooking her own needs in the relentless fight against his illness. We saw how she needed our support just as much as Stelio did.

You see, as Andreas said, “The journey and treatment is very long. After 18 months, I was swaying on my feet with exhaustion. It’s a journey that tests the limits of endurance, physically and emotionally for warriors and their caregivers.

“In the paediatric oncology wing of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, we found ourselves surrounded by individuals fighting different battles against cancer,” Andreas said. “In spite of the diversity of our struggle, we found solace and strength in one another. Conversation in the corridors, WhatsApp messages exchanged in the dead of night, and simple smiles between weary parents became our pillars of support.”

I’m so grateful that Andreas and his family were led to us to help them. Just by helping them and so many others every day, I keep alive my beautiful daughter’s memory and her passion for life.

I understand what Prince William and his family are going through. It’s harrowing, but like others in our community, it’s important to reach out for help and support from those who understand. You’ll be surprised how much they want to help you.

  • Michelle Goodman is the founder and chief executive of DL Link, an organisation that does whatever it can for people fighting cancer and their families.

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