Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumours (GIST)

Des Watkins: My second life

June 2, 2024 Word for Word Media 0Comment

Des Watkins tells us about how a drug trial and surgery gave him his second life, how losing his first wife to metastatic breast cancer impacted him, and the joy of finding love again.

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Desmond Watkins (67) lives in Umkomaas, KwaZulu-Natal with his second wife, Burnice. He has two adult children from his first marriage.

Diagnosed in 2003

Des and Glynis, Des’ first wife, were staying in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) at the time when Des began experiencing terrible abdominal pain. He was treated for stomach ulcers though the pain became so severe that he could no longer stand upright so he was referred to a specialist. An ultrasound showed a large fist-size mass in his abdomen. He was advised to immediately go to SA for a CT scan. Once in SA, the CT scan revealed the gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) which had encapsulated his stomach, pancreas, spleen, and part of the intestine and lung.

Drug trial participant

Des decided to go see Glynis’ oncologist as she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, in 1997, at age 36 and was in remission.

“I was told that it had been growing slowly for many years at an expected rate of one centimetre per year. With no hope of removal, the oncologist managed to find a treatment, which at the time was an experimental drug called imatinib. However, the cost would have been R1000 per tablet and I needed to take one tablet a day. Financially, this wasn’t doable so thankfully I was given the option to become a voluntary trial patient; this meant I wouldn’t bear the cost,” Des explains. “I took this wonder drug for about six months and it did its job by shrinking the GIST enough to allow for the removal operation to take place.”

The surgery took place in 2004 in Durban and Des sees this as giving him his second life. “I’m eternally grateful to all those involved: my wife, doctors, specialists, employers, family and friends.”

Des was advised to continue with the oral targeted therapy tablet for as long as possible as maintenance treatment which he has done so for twenty years now. The only side effect he has experienced is watery eyes. His follow-up schedule consists of full bloods counts quarterly, an abdominal CT scan annually and discussion with the oncologist to go through the scan. In 2021, the drug trial programme was stopped so Des changed to a generic (imatinib mesylate) which he continues to take daily.

Saying goodbye to Glynis

Glynis fought cancer for 12 years before sadly passing away in 2009 from metastatic breast cancer that spread to her spine and brain. She was in remission for ten or so years but in 2006 the cancer returned.

“We were both having treatment at the same time but what made it easier for us was the fact that my treatment was in tablet form. These were, however, very difficult years for us, especially for my children. Unfortunately, during this period, in 2007, Glynis’ father passed away and her mother had a stroke. They were living in Scottburgh at the time, so we brought her mother to Eswatini to take care of her. It was all downhill from there as they both became bedridden and as I was working, I relied on the service of a live-in caretaker to care for them during the day. Thankfully, we had many kind friends and volunteers including medical doctors and healthcare clinic staff, so we managed.”

During this time Des’ children were at boarding school in SA and would spend weekends with them.

Glynis’ mother passed away in 2008 and Glynis a year later. “This was an extremely trying time for both my children and I losing Glynis at the young age of 48. With two teenagers, aged 14 and 16, life wasn’t easy even though we had prepared ourselves for the worst. I was absolutely lost after caretaking for many years, then suddenly nothing. I feel for my children who had to endure so much at such a young age.” Des says candidly.

A new friendship turns to love

That same year, 2009, Des met Burnice at a social gathering where they became friends. Since Burnice and her daughter lived in Johannesburg, it was a long-distance friendship to begin with.

“As time moved on and things got more serious between us, we became each other’s biggest supporters and our relationship strengthened and with the blessing of family, Burnice moved to Eswatini to live with me, and we married in October 2012,” Des explains. Des adds, “Burnice has been there for me every step of the way and is a wonderful person with a passion for healthy cooking and baking among many other things, so I feel really blessed to be part of her life. We are really a tight team.”


When Des was diagnosed with the GIST, he found support in family and close friends and adds that since he is a loner, joining a support group didn’t interest him.

When asked about how the diagnosis affected him emotionally, he responds, “I believe that I may have been less affected emotionally as throughout my life I always put other people first, especially Glynis, which may have eased my emotions. Though, I believe that all the obstacles in my life have helped strengthen me as a person.”


Des and Burnice moved back to SA in 2021, and are currently enjoying retirement, doing puzzles, word games, sudoku and the great outdoors (caravanning and camping). “We exercise, mainly walking, and we do at least 4 – 5km walks three times a week. This is good for the body, mind and soul and through Burnice’s cooking and baking skills I’m well taken care of regarding diet.”

“Through my 20 years as a GIST survivor with the use of the oral targeted therapy drug, I have lived a very normal life. I believe in consuming 1,5L of water every morning when waking up, cleaning out my system, doing everything in moderation and haven’t cut anything out from my way of living.”

Through my 20 years as a GIST survivor with the use of an oral targeted therapy drug, I have lived a very normal life.

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Photos by Photos by Tuhi Photography –  |  Location: Café Sparrow – Gillitts, Durban

Editor Laurelle Williams

MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams

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: [email protected]

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