Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen – Few and far between
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen shares her plight of trying to find other survivors of choroidal melanoma, a rare eye cancer that she was diagnosed with.
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen (59) lives in the Western Cape with her husband. They have two children (24 and 22).
Delayed eye test
Due to COVID Wilma didn’t go for her eye test screening for new spectacles for two years so this year she decided to go. “The optometrist struggled to find a reading for my right eye but told me to choose a spectacle frame while he tested my husband.
He tested my eyes again but still struggled to get a reading so referred me to a specialist,” Wilma explains.
“Being deaf (Wilma became deaf at age three due to meningitis and her husband is also deaf), I organised a sign language interpreter to accompany us.
The ophthalmologist tested me and said its bad news. I didn’t get what choroidal melanoma really means and I asked the interpreter, really bad? He nodded.” Wilma was referred to another specialist.
In February 2022, the second specialist confirmed that Wilma had choroidal melanoma (a type of cancer of the eye) and was sent for a chest X-ray and an ultrasound of the liver.
The specialist explained that there were two treatment options: radiation or enucleation (eye removal) and since most people don’t want their eye removed, he recommended radiation.
When asked if Wilma experienced any symptoms, she responds that at times she did experience seeing black spots and what looked like a strain of hair, but only seen inside the eye.
The 59-year-old underwent once-off plaque brachytherapy. This treatment consists of a custom-made mould that is fitted over the eye and corresponds to the size of the tumour. A radioactive substance is applied to the inner surface of the mould. The mould is attached to the globe and remains there for five days while the tumour is irradiated.
“After the removal of the plaque which was inserted in my eye, I came back after a month for the doctor to check if the 8mm tumour had reduced which it had. After eight months, the tumour has shrunk to 5mm so now I only go for check-ups every four months.”
Getting back to work
Fortunately, Wilma had two weeks off after the plaque brachytherapy. “I was able to get back to work as I mostly work online with two sign language interpreters. Though, in the beginning it was hard because I stare at the interpreters for hours. Fortunately, my laptop is connected to a bigger TV screen which allows me more distance so as to relax my eyes a bit. But it was still difficult adjusting at first. Also, I read a lot late into the night to prepare for meetings, so I had to read less to give my eyes a break,” Wilma says.
Wilma says her vision is the same as before though there is blurriness. “The doctor explained that the radiation was unfortunately on the vision part of my eye. I try not to let the blurriness bother me.”
Even though ocular (choroidal) melanoma is rare, Wilma says her doctor has been so helpful in explaining it. “He responds to all my questions via WhatsApp or email,” she adds
Though finding a support group in South Africa hasn’t been that easy; thankfully Wilma found an online group. “While researching ocular melanoma, I came across a Facebook group that has a support group that meets weekly on Zoom. Unfortunately, I can’t join too often because the South African time that this group meets is 1am in the morning. Plus, I have to arrange for sign language interpreters, so it’s difficult to get interpreters willing to be up 1am in the morning, even though there are a few who will do it for me. This group is very helpful, as there are more people in the USA with this rare cancer. In SA there are a few, but it’s difficult to find them.
I have found four. My desire is to find other deaf people or sign language users with this same rare cancer so that I can communicate with them and share feedback.”
Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen made a video in South African sign language in the hope that she will find other deaf people with ocular melanoma and to create awareness.