From the archives | ‘How an unidentified brain tumour almost killed me’

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While still reeling from the massive shock of this diagnosis, Lea Bomvana also tragically lost her mom to Covid-19 a few days later.
While still reeling from the massive shock of this diagnosis, Lea Bomvana also tragically lost her mom to Covid-19 a few days later.

She first went to a doctor, and was given a prescription for headache tablets.

Then she went to a specialist, and she was told there was nothing to worry about.

But the headaches tormenting Leabetswe Bomvana kept coming back.

So she decided to go back to a GP who thought maybe she just needed stronger pain medication.

But, still, the headaches continued.

The Executive Head for Business Strategy at Metropolitan Life tells Drum how an unidentified brain tumour almost killed her.

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In December 2019, Leabetswe (or Lea, as her loved one affectionately call her) was making tremendous strides in her career having started a new job at Metropolitan as Executive Head of Strategy and Execution.

She was also due to kick off her MBA (Strategy) at Wits Business School the following year. During this period, Lea started to notice she was not operating at full capacity after experiencing excruciatingly painful headaches on the left side of her head as well as ringing in her ears.

She attributed the intensely painful headaches to the stress from her new role, as well as other career opportunities which included an invitation as part-time lecture at Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership and an offer to sit on the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation board as Executive Director.  

“The headaches did not subside, so I thought that it might be tinnitus, so I went to see an ENT (Ear, Nose, & Throat) specialist who conducted a few tests, but could not pick anything up initially.

"So I went to a regular physician, who tried to adjust my pain medication for the headaches and could not find anything wrong following her own examinations.

"I was advised to go back to the ENT specialist for a more detailed scan, and consequently in January 2020 an MRI picked up a cavernoma growth (tumour) in the part of my brain called the thalamus, which is deeply embedded in the brain,” she explains.

Due to the location of the tumour in the brain, surgery was not an option, so the only treatment available was stereotactic radiation. While still reeling from the massive shock of this diagnosis, Lea also tragically lost her mom to Covid-19 a few days later. 

“What got me through this very difficult time was acknowledging that I don’t have the strength to do this on my own. I was going to need my husband, my two daughters, my sister, a helper around the house, along with the prayers and support of my friends.

"I just had to acknowledge that I would need help and accept the gesture  when it was offered because for so long, I had tried to do everything on my own. This diagnosis forced me to tap into the power of my tribe – the collective – to help me overcome the challenges.”

Lea explains that the support from her CEO was really amazing: “I remember that I had a meeting with Peter [Tshiguvho, Chief Executive Officer of Metropolitan] and our HR exec to inform them that she was aware that this diagnosis and treatment required was not what they signed up for when they appointed her.

"Peter said, listen you did not ask for this, so we are going to support you. You can manage the workload at your own pace and take as much time off as needed to get better.”

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Her treatment regime involved going for stereotactic radiation at Sandton Oncology Centre and meetings with a team of doctors including an oncologist, neurologist and neurosurgeon. Due to the radiation, she would get extremely tired, and have very little to no energy at times. 

Her diagnosis has deeply altered her approach to life: “Now more than ever I am simply just grateful when I wake up in the morning.

"I no longer stress about things I used to before the diagnosis. I am also a lot more hopeful in approaching difficult tasks and the diagnosis also helped me focus only on the things that matter and will continue to matter in the future.”

Currently, the tumour is responding positively to the radiation and is shrinking. ‘At my last session with the medical team, it had shrunk 60% from its original size.’

This was enough of a reduction for her to decide along with her oncologist and neurosurgeon, that they will halt the radiation treatments and monitor the tumour to make sure it is continuing the shrink, as the radiation treatments themselves are also harmful to the brain.  

Beyond changing her outlook on life, her journey also altered her approach to leadership. “It has made me show up differently, with the first of these being authentic leadership, where I bring my true self to the boardroom.

"I am also showing up courageously,  as I am more comfortable to make audacious strategic decisions, even with some fear or apprehension about risks."

Ultimately, her advice to people is to draw from their inner strength to sustain forward momentum. 

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