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Denial in cancer:wishing it away is a disease on its own



 PMS Group Managing Director Shanna Nyambok

Some people assume that avoiding a topic or a difficult situation in their lives can make the issue vanish. While this gives temporal satisfaction, what many people have never known is that getting a coping mechanism instead of confronting the problem is denial. This can lead to depression and/or subsequent death. Shanna Nyambok, a wife, mother of two and a cancer survivor describes her journey through denial to Lucy K Maroncha


“I don’t know how you will do it, or whatever method you’re going to use but you must get that cancerous lump from my breast,” I summarily told the doctor who was booking me for the surgery. I sternly told him that my two children were too young to be motherless and I could not imagine my husband being a widower. At that moment, cancer to me meant death.


My grandfather had died of cancer but it had never crossed my mind that anyone in my family would suffer cancer, let alone me. A biopsy that had been done on me had just confirmed that the lump on my breast was malignant and I needed an emergency surgery because the cancerous tissues were already spreading in the blood system. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, miles away from my family in Nairobi for a business meeting - not a mastectomy!


Who could understand this, I had left home in one piece and now I would be going back with only one breast? This was incomprehensible! Momentarily, I thought about how I grew up in a wealthy family full of love; how I got married and became a mother and my great and promising career. Why would cancer want to destroy my happiness now?


Big names


Thoughts ran through my mind as I hoped that a laboratory attendant would rush in and apologise that this was a mistake and it wasn’t me who had the cancerous tumor but another patient. To me, cancer was a word for “them” and not for me. “After all, I can’t have cancer, why and where would I get it, anyway?” I had always kept reassuring myself. I always thought that such diseases with big names belonged to other people - but not me.


I had never been screened for cancer as it had not occurred to me that I would be diagnosed with it.  Even when I saw an article on cancer in a magazine, I never paid much attention because that wasn’t a topic within my interest. I was in so much denial that cancer wasn’t my portion that even when in August 2008 I felt a lump growing on my breast, I ignored it for a while, not wanting to touch it or even think about it.


I however consulted a doctor in South Africa who confirmed, to my relief, that the tumor was benign. So on this day, four years later, I was in a business trip in South Africa and I decided to see the doctor just as a formality. And the doctor, in the same hospital where I had been given a clean bill of health four years ago, was now here telling me I needed an emergency surgery.


I felt devastated and lost; I wondered who I would share the sad news with. I went back to my hotel room and broke down. I pondered on how I would break the news to my husband; I imagined that he wouldn’t comprehend how I had left Kenya looking lively only to come back to him with only one breast and nursing the operation wound. “Would he find me a lesser woman? I couldn’t help but shiver at the thought.


Shoulder to lean on


But he has since been my greatest source of energy and is always there for me. Although the news hit him more than it hit me, he regained his strength faster than I did and came in handy to support me.This realisation has since brought me closer to God and more so to persons who are not as privileged as I am.  As I addressed the doctor indicating that he had to do what he must to make me well, I had a quick flashback of my life.


I grew up in Mombasa over 30 years ago, to exceptionally loving parents. My late grandpa, Eliud Mahihu was then the Coast provincial commissioner. My two sisters and I went to the best schools and surprisingly we all loved working with figures and digits. My mother was a banker and my dad was in the insurance business. After school I would join my mother at the bank where she was working and I consequently fell in love with numbers.


Years later I would turn into a creative and versatile marketing professional who would represent award-winning companies. Now, the threat of cancer was glaring at me; my background notwithstanding.


Back in my hotel room, after I had cried my eyes sore, I called a friend who consoled me and gave me the strength to call my family. One of my sisters had a direct visa to South Africa and so she travelled immediately. As I was being booked for the theater, I realised how death can be so near yet so far and I kept wondering if I were all alone how miserable I would have been.


The journey was not smooth all the way but looking at the positive side, I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t have the financial and moral support from my family. As I look back today, I figure out that there are hundreds of women who have lost their lives perhaps because they didn’t have the money or even family to morally support them. I have dedicated my life to helping cancer patients both financially and morally. Every time I see a cancer patient, it hits me so hard that I always think that I haven’t done enough to give back for the great support my family and friends gave me.


Thankfully, my surgery was successful though at some point I had to be flown to Pretoria to purchase implants for the reconstruction of the breast. However, four years down the line, after I was declared cancer free, I’m still in denial. It’s only recently at a cancer dinner gala that I gained the courage to speak about my journey with cancer. 


Pangs of denial


But sometimes I really get overwhelmed when narrating the experience; one of my sisters narrates the story better than I do because she walked with me through every dark alley of my journey with cancer. While I was taking the medication, I got tired many times and almost gave up; I would gather guts to throw them out of the window but would always be consoled by the fact that God has been gracious enough that I could afford to buy them. There is someone who would give anything to get the treatment and perhaps their loved ones are watching helplessly, I always reckon.


My life is back to normal but as the quote by Clare Boothe Luce goes, money can never buy happiness but it can give you comfort in your misery. This quote is true to my life; no amount of money has ever been able to ease the panic and anxiety I go through every day.


If I notice a small pimple on my face, I jump in fright as a malicious little voice whispers: “cancer recurs to many people and you’re not an exception”. I know I could give all the money I have if only to get rid of that feeling of anxiety and the persistent pangs of denial.


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