When warriors dance – cancer-beating women embrace fashion in a celebration of life

When warriors dance – cancer-beating women embrace fashion in a celebration of life
Joyce Witbooi (centre) and fellow models for the day (from left) Carla Lind, Reach for Recovery Cape Peninsula chairperson, Lauren Harmse, Taryn Vos, Amber Denae Wright and Dominique Swart at the Punch For Pink Summer Fashion Show on 27 October 2022. (Photo: David Harrison)

The breast cancer support group, which runs various programmes including prosthesis support, recently held a fashion fundraiser where it emphasised the importance of early detection.

On a pink carpet in dappled shade, Joyce Witbooi was one of 35 cancer-beating women dressed in local designs and dancing to music at a Stellenbosch fashion fundraiser.

For the fashion show, Witbooi wore a black-and-white gingham dress by Kim Sassen and diamanté-embellished sunglasses by OZBOB. She was also wearing a special mastectomy bra and a breast prosthesis – subsidised by Reach for Recovery, a breast cancer support nonprofit organisation. 

Normally, the 62-year-old grandmother saves her prosthesis – an artificial breast of silicon – for church on Sundays. But for Reach for Recovery’s Punch for Pink fashion show she wanted to look her best.

“I wear my prosthesis when I’m going out,” said Witbooi. “I feel happy when I’m wearing it. When I dance I like to shake my body and it feels real and comfortable. I like to dance; it’s a part of my exercise.” 

Noelene Christians wearing Ancient Spirit and OZBOB sunglasses at the Punch for Pink Summer Fashion Show. (Photo: David Harrison)

At the event, former public- and private-sector patients strutted side by side. Indeed, some of the models had had reconstructive breast surgery. Others were not able to afford the procedure. Although each woman’s journey with breast cancer was deeply personal and different, there was a sense of unity in elation. It was a day to celebrate survival and life.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Breast cancer: five tips from an expert on catching it early and keeping safe

About 30km from Stellenbosch, Witbooi’s home is on Acacia Street, Philippi East, on the Cape Flats, with few trees and plenty of high, spiked fences. This is a red zone, meaning emergency health personnel require a police escort for fear they may be robbed. Four years ago on Acacia Street, two policemen were shot dead while they were helping a woman who had applied for an interdict against her boyfriend who beat her up. 

DJ Dani B, aka Danielle Bitton, spins tracks at the Punch for Pink Summer Fashion Show. (Photo: David Harrison)

Common journeys

In Witbooi’s community she is known as a “cancer survivor and a warrior” who helps others stricken with the disease. She doesn’t own a car, but often does home visits on foot and in 2018 founded the Sinethemba Survivors support group.

“Sinethemba means ‘we will survive’; we do have a hope that we’re going to heal,” she said. “I’ve done chemo, so I’ve done that journey and I can encourage and teach others.”

Reach for Recovery brand ambassador Marli du Toit is joined by Xavier (5, left) and Quinn du Toit (9) on the runway. (Photo: David Harrison)

Witbooi accompanies patients to Groote Schuur Hospital for chemotherapy. “Sometimes when a person doesn’t have anyone to go with them to Groote Schuur, I go…  I know how it works. You go to hospital reception and book free transport… other people, they don’t know there is free transport.”

She spoke about living in an area plagued by violence: “I was accompanying a lady who [had cervical] cancer; she died early this year. I was taking her to Groote Schuur, organising transport.

Read in Daily Maverick: “My message to other cancer patients: ‘Never give up… and it’s okay to cry’

“But the transport didn’t want to come in here, into our location. The driver said he would leave us at the [Philippi East] police station. And the woman, she was hardly able to walk. You know why, she was just coming from chemo. It’s a 20-minute walk from the police station… So I would organise for a little skorokoro [old car] to pick us up, for R10.”

Witbooi was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer at Groote Schuur in 2010. She recalled how, ironically, as she left the hospital with this news, Cape Town was packed with jubilant soccer fans making their way to Green Point for a World Cup match. 

“Doctors said to me to have chemo, and I said, ‘No, people die of chemo’. But they said no, it is your treatment.” After six months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation, Witbooi was clear. The cancer returned, though. After another round of chemo and radiation, she has now been clear for six years. 

Don’t hide it

Witbooi’s message to sick people is to seek treatment at hospitals and not to rely on traditional healers, or chemists who treat symptoms, not the cause.

In her culture, cancer is not spoken about. “Our people, when you hear the doctor tell you you’ve got cancer, you hide… You don’t tell your family. That is our mistake – we hide the cancer. I encourage people [not to go to] the sangoma instead of going to the doctor.”

Amber Denae Wright wearing Merwe Mode and OZBOB sunglasses. (Photo: David Harrison)

At the fashion show at Blaauwklippen Wine Estate, Reach for Recovery coordinator Stephné Jacobs said the organisation had subsidised silicon breast prostheses for 157 mastectomy patients in the public sector. Patients contribute R80 to cover admin fees for fitting the pieces, which, depending on size, cost the organisation about R800 each. Reach for Recovery also supplies special “mastectomy bras” to patients at the cost price of R200, so the prostheses can be worn comfortably. 

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Jacobs has had breast cancer herself. She told the crowd: “Today is an affirmation and an assurance to all of us that there is indeed life after breast cancer; we are evidence of that. But then, of course, it must be detected early. Early detection is critical.”

Reach for Recovery says women over 40 should have a mammogram X-ray screening once a year.

Another model at the event, Carla Lind, Reach for Recovery’s Western Cape chairperson, said: “Covid has had a major impact on Reach for Recovery. We couldn’t visit patients, we couldn’t do any outreach. So we are sort of starting with the hospitals again, reintroducing our services. It’s tough… the Cape Peninsula is a big area. We have the state hospitals and about 17 private hospitals, and not so many volunteers.”

Read in Daily Maverick: “Between hope and hell – helping patients navigate the Gauteng cancer maze

Following Lind’s diagnosis and surgery at Mediclinic Panorama Hospital in 2012, a visit from a Reach for Recovery volunteer inspired her to join the group. 

“Being visited in hospital… meant such a lot to me,” she said. “Just seeing someone looking so well, knowing she had been where I am. And being able to talk to someone who understands how you are feeling.” 

Mothiba (Winkie) Gum struts her stuff. (Photo: David Harrison)

Taryn Vos on the runway wearing Loskop and OZBOB sunglasses. (Photo: David Harrison)

Lind pointed out the benefits of eating mushrooms. A study by the Beckman Research Institute found that eating 10g of mushrooms a day more than halved the risk of developing breast cancer. 

“Mushrooms are very healthy,” said Lind. “Our Ditto [prostheses] project is a collaboration between South African mushroom farmers and Pick n Pay, which sells pink punnets of mushrooms in the month of October. For each pink punnet sold, R1 comes to Reach for Recovery.” DM168

For more information and donations visit

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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