On 3 September 2018, BBC journalist Rachel Bland tweeted: “In the words of the great Frank S, I’m afraid ‘the time has come’. And suddenly, I’m told, I’ve only got days. It’s very surreal. Thank you so much for all the support… Au revoir, my friends.”
Two days later, she succumbed to breast cancer, after a two-year battle with it. Gwala relates this story to put into perspective his own harrowing experience of cancer.
As with Bland, it started in his colon, but spread to his liver and lungs. It was an incomprehensible blow for a man at the peak of physical fitness, who’d completed the London Marathon just three months earlier.
“Every single day I’m reminded of what I’ve come through. Turn on the TV and there’s live coverage of Aretha Franklin’s funeral, after she died of pancreatic cancer. There’s Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer. And then there’s Rachel Bland. Reflecting on these stories reminds me how lucky I am to be here,” he says.
It was in September 2017 that Gwala first announced to a stunned radio audience that he’d been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. His colleague Steven Grootes ,who’d been standing in for him since he’d taken ill six weeks earlier, conducted the interview with him and couldn’t help crying.
Many listeners felt as if Gwala was already dead, since such a diagnosis is invariably assumed to herald the end. But listening to Gwala that day, one got the impression of a man at peace with the hand he’d been dealt. Absent was any sense of fear or self-pity. “I accepted it the day I was told and I still accept it today. Fortunately, I’ve never been the type of person to ask: ‘Why me?’ In fact every time that question came up, I’d ask: ‘Why not me? If not me, then who?’” reflects Gwala.
It was this attitude that helped prepare Gwala for what was literally the fight of his life. Accompanying him to the studio the day he broke the news to the public were his wife Peggy-Sue, his close friend Robert Marawa and the man he now calls one of his heroes, oncologist Dr Omondy Ogude.
Apart from their wealth of medical expertise, Ogude and his colleagues were also Gwala’s biggest cheerleaders. They took on what seemed to many to be Mission Impossible.
”I remember Dr Ogude telling me at some point that when he first saw my liver, there was more cancer than organ,” recalls Gwala. The early prognosis was ominous. The cancer was so widespread that it presented a major challenge for doctors to operate on.
“The first surgeon who looked at my case dismissed it out of hand, but Dr Marumo was willing to give it a go. I haven’t quite figured out why, but for some reason, these guys were willing take on this battle with me. Perhaps the fact that they’re all more or less my age had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, they took my case very personally. They believed in me and I placed my implicit trust in their abilities, allowing them to lead me on this journey.”