Cape Town - Griffons centre Wynand Pienaar is set to make a remarkable return to rugby in 2017 after being diagnosed with cancer in March.
“I was determined to beat this disease. I always knew I’d play again.”
Those are the first words confidently spoken by Welkom-based Pienaar when asked how he felt when he received his horrific diagnosis earlier this year.
It was this positive mindset that motivated the 27-year-old during his tough battle against Hodgkin's Lymphoma. And with the backing of his family and team-mates, he achieved something that surprised doctors and specialists, who weren’t always as optimistic from the outset.
During the 2016 pre-season, Pienaar carried out his usual training regime. It was his eighth season of professional rugby - his sixth with the Griffons. He’s previously played for the Sharks from 2008 to 2011 and Boland in 2013.
However, there were strange signs that made things tougher for him this season.
“During February, my fitness levels were lower than usual. This was weird because I trained really hard. I also struggled to breathe properly, which was a big concern for me,” Pienaar told MyPlayers.
“The doctors first thought it was asthma, but I knew it couldn’t be. I had asthma as a kid and the symptoms weren’t the same. I was then recommended to visit a specialist in Bloemfontein.
“They ran a few scans and a biopsy. The scans showed a swollen gland. However, the real bad news came when it was confirmed that I had Hodgkin's Disease. I had cancer in my chest. They said it was in Phase 2.
“The good news was the fact that it was curable. I was told I was very lucky because most patients only find this sort of cancer during Phase 4, when it’s usually too late as the cancer has spread too much in the chest area. The fact that I’m a sports athlete helped me to pick up the necessary warning signs.”
Pienaar started his chemotherapy immediately. He was scheduled for 12 sessions between March and August.
“I remember walking out of the hospital with my wife. My parents, her parents and our siblings were waiting for me outside. I was so lucky to have such a strong support structure around me,” said Pienaar.
“I was the first person in my immediate family to be diagnosed with cancer, so this was new for all of us. However, I was not going to give up. I knew I had what it takes to beat this disease. I remember getting home and going out to cut the lawn. I still trained in between my chemo sessions. I was determined to live a normal life and not let this disease control me. And I think that was a very important process because I believe many people fall to cancer because they give up too early.
“My team-mates were also very supportive,” Pienaar added. “I received numerous phone calls, SMSs and WhatsApp messages from the guys. They believed I was strong enough to win this battle and make return to rugby.”
A few months after the nightmare diagnosis on March 11, Pienaar experienced a miracle in June.
“After a few weeks, I felt better inside. I asked the specialist to do another scan on my chest. She didn’t believe there would be any major changes, but I persuaded her to run one any way,” explained Pienaar. “When she returned with the results, she had this big smile on her face. For the first time, she showed some personality!
“She couldn’t believe the results. It showed that the cancer was completely gone. It was confirmed that I beat cancer!”
For safety reasons, Pienaar continued his chemo sessions until August. He experienced a full recovery and recently re-joined the Griffons at training. He’s expected to make a return to competitive rugby in 2017.
This experience motivated the professional players in Welkom to choose CANSA (Cancer Association of South Africa) as their preferred beneficiary for this year’s MyPlayers Players Charity R18 000 donation. Pienaar has also joined the non-profit organisation as their Free State ambassador.
“CANSA is a great organisation that is making a valuable contribution towards research and awareness around cancer in South Africa. They’re helping so many people and their families, who are also affected by this disease. The donation will help them continue their great work,” said Pienaar.
“I want to use my story to motivate everyone. Not only those affected by cancer… I also want to motivate people to believe they can achieve anything with a positive mindset and hard work.”
Pienaar is enjoying a new appreciation for life after his cancer battle, which has motivated him to pursue his goals on and off the rugby field.
“In terms of my rugby career, I want to play in the first game possible in 2017. I’ll be training hard to make this possible. I also hope to earn my Super Rugby opportunity in the near future. I believe I can work hard enough to play my way into a Super Rugby squad,” said Pienaar.
“Off the field, I’ve achieved most of my goals. I got married last year to my beautiful wife and I’m surrounded by a great family. I completed a BCom marketing degree through UNISA, and hope to complete a post-grad qualification in financial planning by the end of 2017. I currently balance my rugby with my career as a financial advisor at Sanlam.
“Otherwise, I just want to continue telling my story to people and inspire them to achieve their dreams and do great things.”
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