If not for the accident, I wouldn’t know I had cancer

Hannah Mwangi (in a blue shirt and cap) with Lady Hope Wellness funder Veronica Njoroge (seated) and a friend

Everyone Hannah Mwangi knew cut links with her when they discovered that she had lung cancer. But now, the 52-year-old has found family at a home that shelters cancer patients who have nowhere else to call home.

I was involved in a motorbike accident in April 2017 on my way home from a grocery stall I ran in Nyahururu. I left the scene with bruises and I even walked home that evening knowing that a massage was all I needed to nurse my injuries. But when I woke up the following day with blood oozing from my mouth, I was convinced that I had sustained more than the few bruises, and had internal injuries.

I checked myself into a hospital in Nyahururu where doctors performed  an x-ray on my chest cavity. After the tests, the doctors appeared puzzled by what they were seeing on the report and referred me for further lab tests in Nakuru. The private facility in Nakuru, in turn, referred me for biopsy at another medical facility. I tried my best to remain calm through all the referrals. A sample of flesh from below my left armpit was taken for the tests. I was told to go for results after a week. When I took the tests back to the hospital in Nyahururu, doctors told me that there was cancer around my lungs.

I had heard of cancer through the media several times, but I didn’t have much information about it. That’s why I wasn’t shocked at the doctor’s pronouncement. I thought it was a disease, just like any other and that it could be treated and I would resume my daily activities after a short time. It wasn’t until my family lost all their savings on my treatment that I understood the magnitude of my disease. And it was only until the same family members and all my friends abandoned me that I learnt that cancer wasn’t just like any other disease. I have come to appreciate cancer through the lens of my poverty and rejection from those I once held close to my heart.

Treatment in fits and starts

Anyway, doctors in Nyahururu advised me to commence chemotherapy at Texas Cancer Centre immediately. A few months into my chemo, my husband left me. He just disappeared and stopped answering my calls. It was a heavy blow to me, considering we had just lost our only son. I was left alone to sweat my way through the adverse side effects of chemotherapy amid my hustle to raise funds for my treatment. I also lost my clients who didn’t understand why I was losing hair on my scalp, why my fingernails were turning black and why I was drastically losing weight. All these were reactions to the chemotherapy drugs. Other clients avoided me when I started borrowing money from them whenever they came to my stall. I had no one else to borrow money from and I couldn’t think of other ways to pay for it.

Five chemo sessions later, my hope of recovering was crushed when NHIF stopped paying for my medication. I had no money to pay in cash and doctors advised me to take a break from my medication until I raised the money. After three months of waiting, a doctor at Nyahururu referred me to Lady Hope Wellness Centre, a charitable organisation that reaches out to cancer patients who can’t afford their medication. In August 2018, I met Veronica Njoroge, the founder of Lady Hope who booked me in Kenyatta National Hospital where doctors explained that I needed surgery to remove cancerous flesh that they said had grown during the three months I was off medication. But the facility was filled and I was told to wait for a year, during which I got very sick. I was vomiting, had persistent headaches and nausea with terrible chest pains.

I was rushed to KNH when I started vomiting blood. For months, I was visited several hospitals, tried several chemo sessions and abandoned them midway for one reason or the other. At one hospital, doctors said they didn’t have a special kind of medication to complete my sixth chemo session. Another round was stopped midway when doctors said it wasn’t working. Doctors had also toyed with the idea of conducting a surgery to remove the cancerous flesh and later abandoned the idea. Midway into chemo, a doctor switched me to painkillers instead of cancer drugs because he said the chemo wasn’t working.

In September last year, I started fresh chemotherapy sessions at KNH and I look at completing medication in February. On Mondays, I report to the hospital lab for blood tests to check whether I am strong enough to sustain a chemo session. On Tuesdays, I go there for consultations with the doctors and on Thursdays I pick my medication.

All this while, I have stayed at Lady Hope where I get food and medication. There are about 80 of us here. Most cancer patients who come here are those who have doctors’ appointments in Nairobi but can’t afford accommodation. So they spend their time here then leave when they complete their medication. But there are also some of us who have nowhere to go and we call this place home. We hold each other’s hands and make our tough ordeals manageable. We laugh together, let go the bitterness of abandonment in our hearts and gradually learn to forgive those who rejected us. We help Veronica by making scarfs, sweaters, kiondos and mats which we sell to raise funds. We also hold campaigns to create awareness against all types of cancers. I always encourage people to take screening seriously for early detection and intervention. Knowing that I had cancer to me was by mere chance. If that accident didn’t happen, I would have gone down with the disease without knowing what I was suffering from.

About lung cancer

Lung cancer, as the name suggests, begins in the lungs. Though people who smoke are at high risk of lung cancer, this type of cancer has also been found in people who don’t smoke.

Causes of lung cancer

Lung cancer is highly associated with smoking but other risk factors include the following

·         family history of lung cancer

·         exposure to secondhand smoke even for people who don’t smoke

·         exposure to high levels of certain gases

Symptoms of lung cancer

In its earliest stages, lung cancer doesn’t manifest itself through any signs and symptoms. But in advanced stages, the symptoms include the following

·         chest pain

·         shortness of breath

·         coughing up blood

·         a cough that doesn’t go away

·         loss of weight

·         hoarseness

·         headache

·         pain in the bones

Complications include

·         Bleeding in the airway which can cause one to cough out blood. sometimes, bleeding can be severe

·         shortness of breath when cancerous cells grow to block the airways

·         pain when advanced cancer spreads to the lining of the lungs or to other parts of the body

·         accumulation of fluid in the space surrounding the affected lung in the chest cavity, further causing shortness of breath

·         Metastasis which refers to the cancer spreading to other parts of the body. This causes pain, nausea, headache or other symptoms depending on the affected organ

Prevention of lung cancer

·         Don’t smoke if you have never smoked

·         Stop smoking to reduce risk of lung cancer

·         Avoid secondhand smoke

·         Avoid toxic chemicals at work

·         Exercise

·         Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables

Treatment of lung cancer

Options include the following

·         Surgery to remove the lung cancer and a margin of healthy tissue

·         Radiation therapy which uses high-powered energy beams to kill cancer cells

·         Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells

·         Radiosurgery also referred to as intense radiation treatment especially where cancer has spread to other areas

·         Targeted drug therapy which blocks specific abnormalities within cancer cells

·         Immunotherapy which uses the immune system to fight cancer. It is an option for advanced cancer patients