Teenage cancer survivor tells others to stand up and make a difference

Natalie Verster, 14, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of four. Ten years later, she wants to write a book about her experience to help educate and inform children about cancer.

Cancer survivor, Natalie Verster (not her real name) was only four years old when she was diagnosed. She could only start treatment at the age of six and her treatment lasted nearly three years, during which time her parents had to sell their house and car to pay for her treatment, as they did not have medical aid.

Natalie had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and had to undergo surgery followed by chemotherapy. Treatment was harrowing and she speaks candidly about her experience. “When I was going through chemotherapy, it felt like I was going through a tunnel where there was no light at the end. Losing my hair was the hardest part for me because I loved my hair. I cried every time I looked in the mirror and saw this girl. I didn’t know who she was.”

Ten years later, Natalie is free of the cancer and eager to help spread awareness about cancer, especially in schools. She joined the Be Cancer Smart School Programme, a new cancer awareness programme in South Africa that aims to promote cancer education in schools. This is done partly through videos, in which cancer survivors tell their stories and share their experiences. Natalie is one of three people documenting their cancer journey via videos that have been included in special packages to be distributed at school.

The programme is run by cancer awareness organisation, Love Your Nuts in conjunction with People Living with Cancer (PLWC), which is led by Linda Greeff, who heads up social work services at GVI Oncology, an ICON-affiliated oncology practice. Greeff became aware of Natalie’s story through working on cancer awareness projects with Natalie’s mother and asked whether Natalie would participate on the school programme.

Natalie needed no convincing. She wants to tell other children not to act differently towards children who have cancer. The stigmatisation of cancer is something she experienced personally and found extremely painful. “All my friends – the people I played with at school – didn’t want to play with me because they thought you could get cancer by just talking to the person.”

Natalie, now 14, is back in school and doing well. She says cancer awareness is important and she says she doesn’t want others to go through the same experience that she did. She says it is crucial that children tell someone if they find something unusual on their body, like new lumps or moles. She stresses the importance of early detection and the need for more awareness of cancer, not only for patients, but also for friends and family members of those with cancer.

Natalie’s dream is to write a book about her cancer journey, telling others how she survived cancer; spreading a message of courage and hope to those battling the disease. Her message is clear and unequivocal. “You have to be positive. I am not a cancer survivor, I am a conqueror of cancer. You can either let it get you down or you can stand up and make a difference.”