Eikehof care home – a refuge for many cancer patients on treatment far away from home

Eikehof care home – a refuge for many cancer patients on treatment far away from homeEikehof is one of eight CANSA (Cancer Association of South Africa) homes offering accommodation to cancer patients around South Africa. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
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Even on a grey winter’s day, the Eikehof care home in a quiet Athlone cul-de-sac in Cape Town is sun-washed and bright. In the kitchen, general assistants Tania Mazamebela and Nelisa Gxabagxaba are unpacking a Woolworths donation. There are apples and pears, bunches of roses, prepackaged beetroot salad, chicken BBQ pancakes, and scores of bottles of milk. One of eight CANSA (Cancer Association of South Africa) homes offering accommodation to cancer patients around South Africa, Eikehof receives on-day-expiry food from a local Woolworths store twice a week. This is arranged through FoodForward SA, a food bank that redirects surplus food to non-profit organisations.

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On the stove, dinner cooked by Mazamebela is ready – chicken pasta. The home’s coordinator, social worker Angelina Lingani-Ngubu, is taking Spotlight on a tour of the premises. “The food is really good here,” she says. “I mean, recently we had this prostate cancer patient from the Northern Cape. He picked up so much weight while staying here. He didn’t even want to leave! He was a wonderful man. He spoke Khoisan. He would speak to his family over the phone in that language.”

Eikehof care home’s coordinator, social worker Angelina Lingani-Ngubu
Eikehof care home’s coordinator, social worker Angelina Lingani-Ngubu. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

With a total of 21 beds, Eikehof accommodates cancer patients from around South Africa, providing a homely space while they receive treatment in Cape Town. Lingani-Ngubu says they are seeing more and more South Africans travelling from far away to seek medical care in Cape Town, even from as far afield as Lesotho. Staying at Eikehof costs R106 a night, which includes three meals, but she says no patient would be shown away for a lack of funds. A dedicated CANSA shuttle provides free daily transport to oncology units at Groote Schuur Hospital, the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, Netcare N1 City Hospital, Mediclinic Panorama, and Mediclinic Louis Leipoldt, where patients have chemotherapy, radiation, or transplant surgery.

In the double storey house, upstairs, 25-year-old Liteboho Sello is reclined on a bed, on a polka dot duvet. On his bedside table is his current read Excellence: How to Pursue an Excellent Spirit by Andrew Wommack and a charging laptop.

bedroom at eikehof
With a total of 21 beds, Eikehof accommodates cancer patients from around South Africa, providing a homely space while they receive treatment in Cape Town. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Sello is from the Leribe district in northern Lesotho. On his first day as a graphic design student at Limkokwing University in Maseru in 2017, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. The next year, he started chemotherapy with Dr Jacques Malherbe in Bloemfontein and had surgery to replace much of the bone in his right leg with metal. On his bed, Sello lifts his track suit pants to reveal a ragged scar along his leg.

Sello’s cancer went into remission until last year when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. Malherbe referred Sello to Groote Schuur, where his treatment and accommodation at Eikehof are covered through research grants procured by Professor Vernon Louw, Head of the Division of Clinical Haematology at the University of Cape Town.

cancer patient reading at Eikehof
25-year-old Liteboho Sello is a cancer patient residing at Eikehof while receiving cancer treatment. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

“There are no cancer hospitals in Lesotho,” says Sello. “So cancer patients go to Bloemfontein for chemo and other stuff, which is two hours away. It was my doctor in Bloemfontein, Dr Jacques Malherbe, who organised for us to get a bus to come here to Cape Town.”

Sello travelled to Groote Schuur from Bloemfontein on an overnight bus, arriving on January 27, along with his uncle and his 12-year-old sister who would be his stem cell donor.

“With this type of cancer, they said the possible donors should be your siblings, as they have the best chance to be a hundred percent match,” says Sello. “There are three of us. I’m the oldest and there’s my brother who will be 23 this year. But he had a problem doing it because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. So there was my sister who is 12 years old. My parents asked her. We talked to her. She knew I’d been sick for a long time [and] they explained how this needs to be done for me. And she said, no it’s fine, she can do it. At first, she was scared and we tried to calm her, but it wasn’t easy because we didn’t know what to expect. When we came here, she was fine. After everything, she was like, this is actually nothing. There was no pain.”

inside eikehof cancer care home someone adjusting a painting
Eikehof is a home away from home for many cancer patients. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Cancer and cancer treatment can damage haematopoietic stem cells, which can be replenished through a stem cell transplant. At Groote Schuur, stem cells were collected from Sello’s sister’s bloodstream. In preparation, he had intense chemotherapy, after which her stem cells were infused into his bloodstream through a catheter. After a stem cell transplant, patients are closely monitored as there are serious risks, including their weakened immune systems, making them vulnerable to bacterial, fungal, and viral infections.

Sello spent most of February in hospital as his body adjusted and fought to live. He developed a fever and was kept a week longer. Discharged on 10 March, he arrived at Eikehof, exhausted and darkened from chemo. But since then his skin tone is recovering. He has picked up ten kilos – he now weighs 58 kilograms – and on his chin traces of beard growth have resumed.

Angelina Lingani-Ngubu in a conversation with a patient at Eikehof
Angelina Lingani-Ngubu in a conversation with a patient at Eikehof. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Sitting on a bed next to Sello, Lingani-Ngubu says, “Patients who have blood [stem cell] transplants are secluded in hospital for about 21 days because they basically have no immune system. When Liteboho arrived, he was just sleeping, eating in bed. He is recovering well, though.”

Asked about the procedure, Sello shrugs. “There’s nothing much I can say about it. I’ve been to hospital so much. It’s just that you face some really difficult, some really hectic side effects.”

Sello will stay at Eikehof for another six months to a year, while doctors monitor his blood. Meanwhile, his uncle and sister have returned to Leribe. Asked about his accommodation in Cape Town, Sello laughs, saying, “Oh it’s very nice. I really like this place. I don’t miss home that much.”

When told that he is brave, he smiles and says, “I have to be.”

PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

In her office downstairs, Lingani-Ngubu recounts her heart breaking soon after she joined Eikehof in November 2021, when a young leukaemia patient passed away from complications following a stem cell transplant.

“I mean, my first leukaemia patient, *Xholo. He had just turned 16. He was from Mossel Bay and was planning the following year, which was 2022, to finish his matric, because he had skipped a year as he had been sick. His dad was the donor, but unfortunately, his dad was only a 50% match, which doesn’t really matter. There have been many patients after him who had 50% match donors, who pulled through.

“Xholo was very scared. He lost a lot of weight. I would see him in the kitchen. He loved coffee, so he would be standing there drinking his coffee, his face full of worry. And when I spoke to him, he would tell me I’m scared Angie. He called me Angie. ‘I am scared, I’m worried,’ he would say and I would try to boost his confidence in terms of look at so-and-so; she’s pulled through, and he’s pulled through. And I just told him that, listen, everything is up to God. All you have to do is be strong and pray about it. And ja, within a couple of days, I got that call. The social worker at the hospital want[ed] a contact of Xholo’s mother as unfortunately, he had passed away. There were just too many things that didn’t work, you know. He had infections as well.”

reception at eikehof
CANSA has eight care homes offering accommodation to cancer patients. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

Lingani-Ngubu remembers Xholo receiving a donated phone shortly before his procedure. “He went with the phone to hospital and he was sending me messages. He wasn’t able to breathe properly. He was sending me VNs [voicenotes] to say he was now on a nappy, within less than three days. I mean he walked out of here [Eikehof]. And so Xholo passed away, just like that. He had left all his belongings here at Eikehof with the hope that after the 21 days of isolation, he’s gonna come back and recuperate and then be back to normal.”

Lingani-Ngubu says Xholo was the only patient who passed away while accommodated at Eikehof since she arrived. This experience touched her deeply, and she required debriefing. Before joining CANSA, Lingani-Ngubu, who lives in Khayelitsha, worked at a string of non-profits including Childline and the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation. She says she has learned that cancer does not discriminate. Their patients are of all demographics, from both the private and public sectors. What they try to achieve at Eikehof, she says, is a family atmosphere where patients can support each other; for example, in the shared dining room people will encourage someone who has lost all appetite due to treatment to take a bite to eat.

Eikehof in Athlone, Cape Town.
Eikehof in Athlone, Cape Town. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

“For example, *Cathy from Oudshoorn, she was here. She was undergoing chemotherapy. She wasn’t feeling well at all. We didn’t even know, but she said afterwards, ‘Angie, I actually wanted to give up, but it’s your words, including the night carers’ words, that lifted me up.’”

Thanks to a donation, Eikehof will have Netflix soon. Inside its lounge area, shelves are stacked with donated books and magazines. Presently, the lounge is furnished with upright single chairs, as the home’s old sofas were worn and had to be thrown out. This beautiful home-away-from-home for cancer patients is always looking for donations. (Spotlight observes that comfortable sofas would certainly be a welcome addition.)

*Identities withheld