In a span of six years, Florence Ojode, now 73, has fought two different cancers three times. She shares her story with My Health.
I was first diagnosed with cancer aged 60 in 2007. The diagnosis, which came exactly a month after my younger sister’s death from breast cancer, was a painful blow. My sister had died at age 54 in June; I got my diagnosis in July.
I had been my sister’s caregiver throughout her fight with cancer. As you can imagine, I had been reading up a lot about cancer so I could help her. When I felt a hardened lump in my breast during a breast self-examination, I immediately knew what this could mean. With my family history, breast cancer seemed like the surest bet.
Like anyone in that situation would be, I was distraught. If it was cancer, would this be a death sentence for me, too? I waited a week to see if the lump would disappear, feeling it every day and praying for it to go away. It didn’t.
I went to the same surgeon who had treated my sister. He immediately ordered for a series of tests, including a mammogram and biopsy. The biopsy showed that the mass in my breast was indeed cancerous. I had stage two breast cancer. I was referred to an oncologist, who recommended a mastectomy of my left breast.
A month after the mastectomy, I started chemotherapy treatment; I had six sessions of chemotherapy followed by 25 sessions of radiotherapy.
I didn’t mind the removal of my breast if it meant that I’d be cancer-free. I found the chemotherapy and radiotherapy to be even more brutal than the mastectomy.
After chemotherapy sessions, which I had after every three weeks, I’d feel sick and weak. I would have the treatment five days a week, Monday to Friday, and take breaks on weekends. I was also placed on hormonal treatment. The doctor explained that because my type of cancer was hormone sensitive, hormone therapy would help prevent recurrence. I was then given the all-clear from cancer. All was well!
However, in 2010 I noticed my right nipple was inverting. From my knowledge of breast cancer symptoms, I immediately knew that something was wrong. It isn’t normal for a nipple to get inverted and this often means there’s a tumour pulling it inwards.
A mammogram exam on the breast showed inconclusive results. But a biopsy confirmed that I had breast cancer for the second time.
This time round, the cancer was in the first stage. With this fact in mind, the doctor recommended a mastectomy; I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy sessions again.
After the mastectomy, I had 25 sessions of radiotherapy. I was put on different hormonal drugs to keep the cancer away. I was also required to have regular testing in case of recurrence.
But my battle with cancer was far from over. In 2012, I started feeling sick. I lost my appetite, felt constantly nauseated and bloated, and was always tired.
The doctor I went to see thought that I was only suffering from acidity. They gave me antacid medication and sent me away. But after weeks of taking the medication and seeing no improvement, I knew that it could be something more than acidity. In fact, my symptoms seemed to get worse with time.
My oncologist ordered an X-ray scan to see if cancer had recurred. The scan showed that I had an 8cm abnormal mass in my pelvis. I was referred to a gynaecologist, who recommended I immediately have surgery to remove the tumour. But I didn’t like the idea of having surgery without confirming if it was cancer. Together with my family, we decided to seek a second opinion outside the country.
At the time, PET scans weren’t available in Kenya. I travelled to Israel to get one, and it showed that I had ovarian cancer. I was scheduled to have surgery to remove my ovary immediately. Because the cancer was caught in stage one, I only had two radiotherapy sessions and no chemotherapy. But I would need even more frequent follow-up tests in case of recurrence.
From that time till now, I have been healthy and cancer-free. I go to my oncologist for follow-up tests and scans. I’m still on hormonal treatment, which I’ll have to take for the rest of my life. But this is a small price to pay for keeping cancer at bay.
I try to live my life positively and make the most of my time. I make sure to eat healthy; my meals comprise plenty of vegetables and I make sure to include fish and kienyeji chicken. I avoid red meat because I’m also hypertensive. I go for exercises at Faraja Cancer Care at MP Shah Hospital. These exercise classes are specially tailored for cancer patients and survivors.
I have learned that cancer is a very expensive disease. I’m lucky to have had a very supportive family. They came through for me both financially and emotionally. For a person who doesn’t have access to such resources, cancer can have a devastating effect on them.
Even if you are relying on a health insurance cover, with cancer treatments, you quickly max out on the limit and have to start paying out of pocket. The NHIF covers such a small percentage of the costs that it doesn’t make much of a difference. I hope the government can make better policies regarding cancer treatment in the country.
Living out my life to the fullest
In a way, I was lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer at an older age. I was 60 when I got my first diagnosis, by which time I had already retired from my job. Having a double mastectomy and removal of the ovaries can be devastating on a younger woman still in her reproductive years.
I wear prosthetic breasts, and when I’m dressed, I look like any other woman my age. I focus on fully enjoying my life. In fact, in 2018 I was in Holland for three months, and last year I was in the US for three months. I’ve had as much fun as I could wish for.
I want other cancer patients and survivors to know cancer isn’t a death sentence. You can beat cancer and enjoy your life. Adopting a negative attitude will not only make you unhappy, it can also worsen your cancer symptoms and cut your life short.
The coronavirus pandemic is especially terrifying for cancer patients and survivors. If you are a cancer survivor and over the age of 58, it is advisable to stay indoors to avoid contact with any infected persons or surfaces. For now, I am staying indoors as I wait for the situation to get better.