The journey of a cancer hero

‘Each step now means something quite different’
Thursday, April 13 2023

For a local nurse dedicated to answering the call to care for others it has been a year of life changing highs and lows, starting with her own cancer diagnosis and culminating in an international honour in recognition of the hope that she embodies.   

Sr Penny Olwage, an occupational health nurse practitioner at Netcare Greenacres Hospital, was recently named a ‘Global Hero of Hope’ by the American Cancer Society and the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) for her clear commitment to helping and inspiring others to beat the disease. She is one of four 2023 Global Heroes of Hope in South Africa, joining 30 other heroes globally.

“I had for many years been involved in the CANSA Relay For Life events, which I was originally drawn to when a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. The events run through the night and are well attended by cancer survivors and members of the community. Becoming involved was a symbolic gesture that my friend had support on her journey, day and night, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Sr Olwage.  


Global Relay For Life® events are held in more than 3000 communities across 31 countries. They are held in celebration of cancer survivors and caregivers in honour of those whose lives have been lost and with the aim of raising funds for lifesaving education and support programmes in the fight against cancer.

Sr Olwage was so moved by the community spirit and the uplifting atmosphere at the Relay event that she began volunteering year after year. She is also a Zumba instructor in her spare time and started organising Zumba events to help raise additional funds. At the recent 2023 CANSA Relay For Life event a total of R97 000 was raised, with Sr Olwage’s team – named ‘Happy Feet’ – being awarded the trophy for the team that raised the most funds towards this amount.

“I found so much meaning in playing my part to help others affected by cancer – I simply had no idea I would soon be living with the disease myself. As a fit and active healthcare professional, I was bewildered when I felt a lump in my breast shortly before last year’s Relay For Life, and it was surreal when just a few days later I was having a mammogram under the urgent advice of my doctor,” she notes.

“It came as an absolute shock to receive a positive cancer diagnosis. Now it was my turn to walk that path and while it felt like everything was snowballing between the operation, the chemotherapy and all the doctor’s visits, I did my best to maintain a positive attitude. I thought of my friend who had successfully overcome cancer and that motivated me.

“I am also fortunate enough to have an incredible support system in my family, my friends and colleagues and I leaned heavily into my work as an occupational nurse – even on the bad days, continuing to work at the hospital gave me a sense of purpose and helped to take my mind off the cancer.

Sr Olwage says that while she is still going for follow-up appointments, she has completed her treatment and now feels better than ever before. “Having said that, the most recent Relay event that we did this year was extremely emotional – each step that I took meant something quite different to me: I now have an entirely new perspective. I am humbled to have received this title of Global Hero and my aim is now to take on more responsibility in using every opportunity to spread the message of hope and to continue raising funds,” she says.


Andre Bothma, general manager at Netcare Greenacres Hospital, says Sr Olwage has been a remarkable example of perseverance and hope to so many people at the hospital and in the local community. “We are truly honoured that individuals like Sr Olwage choose to be part of the Netcare family. We are her biggest fans and will continue to cheer her on in the important work she does, in and outside of our hospital.”



Notes to editor
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