Carole: My battle with breast cancer
It was the end of just another normal day, in November 2002 and I was in my mid 20’s.
As I lay beside my 1 year 8month old son breastfeeding, he bit my nipple and as I moved to rub it in relief, I felt a small pea-like lump on my breast.
At first I thought it was milk accumulation, but in the morning it was still there.
That got me scared as I recalled that while in high school we were taught about Self Breast Examination (SBE), breast health and lumps.
I visited a private clinic in Embu town, where I lived, and an open biopsy was carried out. I had to wait for a histology report from Nairobi as no facility in Embu could do the tests.
The wait was trying, but finally the day arrived, I met the lab assistant who informed me that my results had been delivered.
The report showed that I had stage 2B cancer. I felt my world crumble.
I called the doctor and read out the results to him and within 15 minutes we were both seated in his clinic. I could barely hear his words but I could see his lips moving.
“Daktari how long do I have to live?” I asked.
“It’s not about how long you have to live, but how fast we move,” responded the doctor politely.
He looked down, picked papers, wrote out prescriptions and referred me to a gynaecologist in another clinic who was to explain further the course of treatment.
Being a weekend, I had to wait till Monday the following week to see the surgeon.
When the meeting finally took place, he told me I was to go through a medical procedure called mastectomy, which means the removal of the whole breast, a radical way to treat breast cancer.
He informed me that the last time he performed a mastectomy was in 1990. This was 2002! I knew then that I was standing on the edge of my grave!
I went home heartbroken, not knowing what to tell my mother, who up to that point I had not told I had cancer.
I did not want to break her heart so I decided to handle the issue on my own, quietly.
I put my son under the care of my mother and my two younger brothers who were still at the university, one doing a masters degree and the other a degree in law.
I made them promise not to disclose my illness to anyone.
I then confided in a friend I had met when I was working in Nairobi whose husband is a doctor at the Kenyatta National Hospital.
My friend connected me to her husband who helped me secure an appointment with an oncologist at KNH, who, after the consultation, referred me to the theatre immediately.
However, since I had not revealed my condition to my family, I had to go back and tell them before going under the knife.
I went home and made arrangements for my son to stay with my brothers while I was away on treatment.
I then returned to hospital and the operation was performed shortly after, which was on December 17, 2002.
This was the beginning of my long journey to recovery.
After my stiches were removed, I was referred to the oncology clinic where I was met with incredibly long queues.
Here I was informed that the soonest I could be put on chemotherapy would be August 2003. I was distraught, eight months was too long for me to wait.
Luckily, a doctor friend helped me get ahead in the queue, but I had to procure the drugs needed for the chemo, as the hospital did not have them.
THE NIGHTMARE OF CHEMOTHERAPY
I quickly realised that the cost of chemotherapy would be too much for me as I was unemployed, so I appealed for help from friends and family to foot the cost.
In January 2003 I received my first dose of chemotherapy. It was a nightmare! Within minutes my whole system was burning and I was overcome with nausea and vomiting.
The side effects of the chemo were painful, my appetite took a beating and my hair started falling off.
By the third week, when I was due for my second chemo dose, I had lost all my hair, including my eyebrows and eyelashes.
I looked at the pinkish reflection in the mirror and saw a ghost! I used to have long lovely hair for years, but that had since been replaced by a shining bald head.
The funny stares and gazes from the people I met in church that Sunday, before I went to hospital for my second cycle, made me uneasy. But I was determined to stay positive and brave.
My immunity also suffered as I was taken ill with minor infections after any exposure to dust.
TOLL ON FAMILY, FRIENDS
I had been taken in by an uncle who stayed at Rongai during the treatment, but other relatives would insult me over the disease.
During my treatment, I did not take part in my normal activities so I became lonely as I was left alone at home as people went about their normal activities.
In order to stay in touch with my family, I visited them a few days before the next dose of chemotherapy.
The talk in the village broke my heart as people claimed that I had been bewitched, others claimed I was dead. Still, I was determined to fight on despite the negativity.
My illness made my mother lose weight due to stress and the talk back home did not help matters.
I also lost friends due to the huge hospital bills, which they found burdensome.
After I finished my doses of chemotherapy, I started radiotherapy at the same hospital immediately.
Radiotherapy was not without challenges as the machines at one time broke down and we had to seek an alternative at the Nairobi Hospital.
I finished radiotherapy in July 2003, after which I was put on hormonal therapy for five years.
The hormones made me gain so much weight that at one point I was 120kgs, which depressed me.
Five years after my diagnosis, in 2007, my doctor confirmed that my cancer was on remission and I have been well since then, 13 years down the line!
I reflected back on the five-year journey in my battle with cancer.
I had stared death in the face, watched people come in with disease at a stage that was beyond treatment, experienced lack of palliative care knowledge and seen the strain and despair on their caretakers’ faces, so I resolved to change that situation.
I decided to give back to society by creating awareness of the disease and sensitising the society on the importance of early diagnosis.
Indeed, the diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence, and I am a living testimony.
Story by Carole Njagih
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