Riaan Baatjies – I belong here and now
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When Riaan Baatjies got his warrior-themed tattoo, in 2016, little did he know that for the rest of his life he would be a warrior, facing Stage 4 kidney cancer. He shares how he grappled with mortality but most of all is striving to be a better version of himself.
Riaan Baatjies (47) lives in Discovery, Gauteng with his wife, Joselyn, and two children, aged 23 and 18.
In October 2017, Riaan was at work when he used the bathroom and urinated blood. “It wasn’t sore just a shock to see. It wasn’t red urine, it was fresh blood,” Riaan explains. The father contacted his wife and they immediately went to the emergency room where he was admitted. The next day he had a CT scan and a 12cm tumour was found on his left kidney. “It had consumed three quarters of the kidney,” he says.
The whole left kidney was surgically removed, and Riaan was referred to an oncologist. It was decided that no treatment was needed at the time, only observation, as the cancer was localised (no spread). Riaan went for scans every three months.
Restaged to Stage 4
After two years of clear scans, in 2019, a tumour was found in the upper lobe of Riaan’s right lung and he was restaged to Stage 4 kidney cancer (kidney cancer spread to the lung). The father of two says it took a long time for him to accept the diagnosis, in that he has limited time left.
“In those two years I almost forgot that I had cancer, even though I went for three-monthly scans. Now, I was back to square one. I went for counselling with a psychologist every two weeks for six months or so. He put me on anti-depressants for more than a year; I hated them as they made me cranky all the time and tired, so he weened me off them. In the time he counselled me, he would make me write about how I feel and what it is that I want to deal with, and to make peace with the fact that everyone dies. This really helped with acceptance,” Riaan says.
After the tumour, and some tissue surrounding it, was surgically removed from his lung, pazopanib, a targeted therapy, was prescribed. He took this oral tablet twice daily. Riaan explains that the side effects included nerve damage to his hands and feet, swelling, nausea, skin sensitivity, hair loss and diarrhoea. “It was horrible.”
A year later, in 2020, unfortunately another tumour returned to the same spot on the lung and a second surgery was done removing the upper lobe of Riaan’s right lung. A new targeted therapy was prescribed, sorafenib.
“The side effects were similar to the last, only ten times worse. The only difference was I got my hair back, but dark spots started appearing on my body. This was the first time my oncologist saw this side effect.”
In July 2021, Riaan started having neck and shoulder pain. After seeing a physiotherapist with no relief, a CT scan was done, and it was confirmed he had bone metastasis on the bottom of his skull. Radiation was prescribed for two weeks and monthly zoledronic acid IV drips started, which is ongoing.
Then in January 2022, Riaan became anaemic, so the doctors investigated why his blood count was so low and it was found that he had a small tumour in his small intestine that was causing him to bleed internally. He was given a blood transfusion and 5cm of his small intestine where the tumour was, was surgically removed.
Riaan was then prescribed a new chemotherapy tablet, xitinib. He adds that the side effects from this is ‘a lot softer’ then the others; he gets less nausea though his skin is still sensitive but isn’t as pale as it was, and he still gets diarrhoea every three days or so.
Unfortunately, when Riaan went for scans last year December, there was progression on his lung, so his oncologist wants to change his treatment to bevacizumab, an immunotherapy drug; they are waiting for approval from his medical aid.
“My oncologist has been excellent with motivations to my medical aid as to why these latest treatments are needed. Thankfully, I’m on a good medical aid so all treatment is covered. Most years around October, my medical aid is depleted, depending if I had surgery or not, and from there it would be cash payments for doctors’ visits.”
Riaan’s diagnosis has been hard on his children and wife; his son also went for counselling which was a great help.
“Joselyn has been so strong and is with me at every appointment. Before every surgery or treatment change, she would always say, ‘Babe, you can do it again. You are strong!’ And that is the main reason I endure all the pain and can face anything thrown at me. Now we, as a family, speak openly about it which helps. I’m currently working on putting on body mass to be ready for whatever the next round of treatment may have in store for me.”
“I’ve accepted that I’ve limited time so I’m making the most of the time I do have with my family. I’ve realised that in this time I have left, I can become a better version of myself and have an opportunity to make a difference. Since my cancer diagnosis I have been striving to be better at my work, be a better father, husband and friend. My daughter and I got involved in community work and feeding schemes; this makes me feel like I belong here and now, and can make a difference. In December, after a very tough year, and a long time, we finally had money leftover so we could go on holiday. Before we went, we chose two families to feed for the month and that made me feel worthier, like I deserve the holiday.”
Since the first diagnosis, Riaan has lost 20kgs and in his own words, he says, “I’m broken, I’ve had so many surgeries. It’s difficult to do anything, my muscles are weak and stiff all the time.” Though, he adds that he feels a lot better than he did last year but he can’t do the normal activities that he used to, like a 5km walk or go fishing. This is where his family comes into play. “They assist me with a lot of the things I can’t do physically anymore, like carry all the groceries in from the car. I do feel guilty, especially when we are in the shops and my wife automatically picks up the packets knowing that I can’t, but people don’t know the situation. I’m the man of the house, I’m supposed to be doing it.”
Riaan has considered medical boarding but feelshe isn’t ready for that yet. “I think if I stop working, I will get more sick quickly. Work takes your mind off things as well.”
Sleep issues is also a big problem Riaan battles with, so his oncologist has prescribed sleeping tablets. “I think it’s a combination of pain and my mind just running on overtime.”
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Laurelle is the Editor at Word for Word Media and graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She have a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write me: firstname.lastname@example.org