“18 YEARS LATER AND I’M STILL LIVING STRONG”
By Mbalenhle Sithebe
Anne Leon is a hero.
She has lived with HIV for 17 years and survived two battles with cancer. But she has never let this get her down. She is a woman of sensational strength who has become a pillar of hope and strength in her community.
Anne, found out she was HIV positive just three weeks before her wedding to husband Trevor in 1997. When the phone rang one morning and her doctor asked her and Trevor to come in to discuss the result of blood tests taken for insurance purposes, she could never have known how much that consult would change her life.
The tests showed that Trevor was HIV positive. Anne was negative. In an instant, their lives had changed.
“I promised Trevor that I would never leave him,” said Anne.
But she said there were so many challenges and questions. “Should we call the wedding off? How are we going to break the news to the family?” The two promised they would deal with it together. The next day, there was another bizarre twist.
She was again called to the doctor’s office, this time to be told her’s and Trevor’s results had been mixed up. It was Anne who was HIV positive.
“I was told that I had only three years to live.”
She was angry and confused, but Trevor hugged Anne and assured her that he was marrying her anyway.
Anne was infected by her ex-boyfriend who infected seven other women. He died just after Anne confronted him because of a front page newspaper article that exposed his charges of manslaughter for having unprotected sex when he was aware of being HIV positive.
Despite Anne and Trevor’s love, the stigma of the disease meant people disowned them, with very real, very painful consequences.
Anne smiled as she said, “We sent out 180 invites to our wedding but only 60 people came.”
Living with HIV wasn’t easy during the 90’s. There were no ARV’s and Anne had to volunteer to have different kinds of treatments tested on her. She participated in an ARV trial but couldn’t take the follow-up companion drugs due to liver enlargement.
She then followed a healthy lifestyle and cared for her immune system but when her CD4 count dropped below 160, she had to go back onto ARV’s.
Her problem was that she couldn’t afford them. So she developed a presentation called “Living Positively with HIV and AIDS”, which she took to schools and church groups.
“Despite the suffering I have experienced, including ovarian cancer and a mastectomy, I feel God has truly blessed me,” says Anne, who smiles easily despite her hardships.
Five years ago Anne had no hair and no eyebrows. Cancer had taken it away from her.
“It took my breast as well,” she said.
As she had breast cancer, Anne had to face another bumpy ride- chemo, radiation and a reconstruction done a year later.
The journey was hard for her. There was a lot of sickness, throwing up, and dizzy spells. But she took it one day at a time.
“I realised that carrying HIV and cancer was not just about me but was about people around me that depend on me and love me,” she said brushing her hair next in a mirror.
This idea of helping and caring for others is one of the things that carried Anne through her hardships.
Anne and Trevor have no children but treat every kid in the neighborhood as their own. The children call her to settle their playground battles, and she helps without delay or complaint.
They have been married 17 years and Trevor is still HIV negative. They often counsel other couples in a similar situation – and they are public about their battle.
“Our aim is to de-stigmatise HIV and AIDS and spread a message of hope”.
A motivational speaker and counsellor, she is also involved in community work dealing with HIV and AIDS related issues.
“I have been the face of HIV on many posters and was named “Hero of the Year“ in 2010 by O Magazine, as well as the SA AIDS Consortium,” she said.
“Look at me 18 years later and I’m still living strong. I can outrun most of the kids in my yard because I’m active. I’m not just an HIV positive person, I am a house wife, I am a motivational speaker, I am a community leader, I am involved,” she said.