Our Story

Marlene (Vermaak) Van Staden

02 FEBRUARY 1981 – 08 JUNE 2023

Marlene’s journey with breast cancer started suddenly and unexpectedly.

She was a beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother of two boys (7 and 3 years old), and a good friend.

The 7 years she served as the Mayor of the Modimolle-Mookghopong Municipality attest that she was a vibrant, positive, and passionate lady.

Marlene’s cancer history started in the early 1900s at the time of the birth of her great-grandfather Jan and great-grandmother Marietjie, parents of her maternal grandfather.

Great Oupa Jan and Great Ouma Marietjie had 8 children: 7 sons and 1 daughter.  Neither Great Oupa Jan nor Great Ouma Marietjie was ever diagnosed with any form of cancer.  However, six of the seven brothers, which includes Marlene’s own grandfather, Oupa Jan, succumbed to cancer, as well as their only sister.  Three of the six brothers died of pancreatic cancer while they were in their early 70’s to late 80’s.  Their only sister “Tannie Sus” (Johanna) was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 1982 at the age of 48.  After treatment, she was in remission for seven years and passed away in January 1989 just a few days short of her 55th birthday.

Two of Marlene’s mother’s cousins were diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 45.  Both of them had bilateral mastectomies and hysterectomies.  Today they are breast cancer survivors.

In 2012 when Marlene’s second cousin, was diagnosed she was informed about familial breast cancer and underwent genetic testing.  She was found positive for the BRCA 1 mutation.  And so the “marker” for our family was established.  But still, nobody realized the severity of this gene mutation in our family.

In 2017 at the age of 63 Marlene’s mother, Dalene, was also diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was found that she had the exact same BRCA 1 mutation as her cousin.  Dalene had chemo as well as a bilateral mastectomy, (yes, she had lumps in both breasts) and a subsequent total hysterectomy.

At this stage, the severe impact of the gene mutation on the family was still not realized.

Marlene’s personal journey started in 2021 at the age of 40, when she went for a screening at the Keystone Radiology bus in Modimolle, of which she was the mayor at that time. Nothing was found and she was declared in good health.

At the beginning of 2022, Marlene became aware of a lump in her left breast. After experiencing pain in her left breast and arm, she was sent for another mammogram at the beginning of June 2022. It was also mentioned that there is a family history of breast cancer, namely her mother. The conclusion of the mammogram was a normal mammogram. The conclusion of the ultrasound evaluation was: negative for malignancy.

An annual mammographic follow-up was recommended.

The swelling in her breast increased and the pain was affecting her left arm as well as her back.  She went for physiotherapy.  But the symptoms became worse and because of the constant pain, she became so desperate that she consulted a plastic surgeon to have this lump removed. 

On 1 September 2022, Marlene visited a surgeon in Pretoria.  On the same day, he sent her for another mammogram, ultrasound, and a biopsy. 

On 5 September 2022, Marlene received a call from her doctor confirming that she had breast cancer. It was already stage 4 and some of her lymph nodes were also affected.

Her chemo at Mary Potter Oncology in Pretoria started on 17 September 2022.  She received 4 sessions, 3 weeks apart (these sessions are referred to by many as “The red devil” and by others as the “magic potion” that kills the devil), and 12 weekly sessions of chemotherapy.  At some stage during the beginning of the chemo sessions, she was tested and found to be a carrier of the BRCA 1 mutation gene. The exact same marker as her mother Dalene and her cousin Marietjie.

After completion of the 16 chemo sessions, she was tested and declared to be in remission.

On 19 April 2023, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy. The operation was a huge success. Two weeks later she received the news that the cancer had shrunk by 99%, with a few isolated cancer cells remaining. Of the 5 lymph nodes that were removed, only 3 showed previous positive signs of cancer, but the chemo had “cleaned” them.  Reason to celebrate!

She was scheduled for 15 radiology sessions to prevent any further cancer and to reduce the occurrence of further cancer. 

But at that stage, she was already suffering from severe headaches, for which she received strong antibiotics and pain medication for a possible infection.  But the pain continued.

On 17 May 2023, Marlene was admitted to the Medi Clinic in Polokwane after she became confused and disorientated. 

She and her family received the very bad news that cancer had metastasized to her brain. This is known as secondary cancer or brain metastases

This happens only to 10 to 15% of persons with stage 4 breast cancer. The risk of brain metastasis is highest for persons with more aggressive subtypes such as triple-negative, as in Marlene’s case.

Sadly, Marlene passed away a year and a few days after the first mammogram and ultrasound, where nothing was found.

Her journey tells us about the need for early genetic testing. 

That is why this foundation was established with the aim of motivating and assisting others in seeking a second opinion, advocating for the importance of undergoing a biopsy, and, above all, knowing your family history and getting tested for the BRCA 1 or 2 gene if there is a family history of cancers.