The story of my brave sister, Unicka Bothma

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I am blessed to have two sisters (Marlomi and Unicka) and today I’d like to share the miraculous story of my youngest sister, Unicka, who is a cancer survivor.

It all started with Unicka’s 12-month check-up with our GP. For the few months prior to this, she had been losing a lot of weight and had no appetite. My mom thought that she might need a vitamin booster, only to find out that it was much worse. On 7 December 2005, Unicka’s first birthday, a day of celebration turned into a nightmare.

My dear sister was diagnosed by a paediatrician with neuroblastoma cancer. Doctors referred my sister to an oncologist at Universitas Hospital in Bloemfontein. So many tests were as done on a one-year-old girl who only weighted 6.5kg. The tests showed that a tumour was growing on her left kidney. It wasn’t possible to remove it surgically because it was too large and an operation would be fatal.

“I don’t know if one person has to die to save another but it was significant to us that with the passing of my father my sister began her recovery.”

The doctors told my parents that Unicka had only a 40% chance of reaching the age of five years of age, and so we immediately started chemotherapy. As the year drew to a close, my parents spent Christmas Eve in the hospital with Unicka. Little did we know it would be my father’s last Christmas.

On 14 February 2006, after a lot of chemotherapy, Unicka had her first surgery. The doctors removed a tumour that weighed 500g, as well as her left kidney. Unicka recovered so well that the doctors sent her home after seven days in PICU. They continued with chemotherapy for another two months and as Unicka’s beautiful brown hair started falling out, my father decided to shave off the last bit of hair she had left.

On 23 April 2006, my parents were packed and ready to leave for another week of chemo. I remember how much I had cried because I didn’t want my dad to go. I even begged my gran to go instead. But after a lot of sweet talk I agreed for them to leave. On the road my mom told my dad: “You would think Lomari will never see you again.”

And she was right.

Five days later, our father died in a terrible car accident. We lost our wonderful daddy, our hero! I was only eight years old, Marlomi was six years and Unicka just 16 months – and still fighting to survive cancer. After the funeral on 5 May 2006, Uncika’s fever broke suddenly and she even took her first steps. Slowly, she began to show good signs of recovery. I don’t know if one person has to die to save another but it was significant to us that with the passing of my father my sister began her recovery. In 2007, doctors declared Unicka cancer free and our broken family started to heal. My mother met a lovely man and they were married in 2008. He is a great father to us and we love him so much.

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L-R: Unicka (13), her nephew Charles (2), mom Marietjie (45) and her sisters Marlomi (19), Lo-Mari (21), stepfather Jakkie (46)

Unicka is one out of 10 children under the age of one year who survive this type of cancer and despite more tumours being detected and removed, there haven’t been any further signs of cancer. It’s been 10 years now and she is still cancer and tumour free. Today she is a courageous 14-year-old along with teenage mood swings!

I’m turning 22 this year and the first-time mommy of a beautiful three-month-old baby girl. I miss my dad so every day and would give anything for him to see what his three beautiful girls made of their lives. But, I do believe that everything happens for a reason.

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L-R: Lo-Mari and Edward Aspeling, with their baby girl Eldwané (2 months)

I hope my sister’s story encourages other people to never give up, never stop believing. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!

Written by Lo-Mari Aspeling. Images by Adéll van Zyl Photography

Also read:

So, your birth didn’t go according to plan? Don’t blame yourself
How I recovered from my C-section