In September 2011, I enrolled for a nursing course at the Kenya Medical Training College in Nakuru and looked forward to learning all about the wonders of medicine. I have always had a calling to take care of the sick and was looking forward to a fulfilling journey in nursing school.
However, everything changed in October, 2013 when I noticed a lump in my breast. I ignored it, assuming that it was due to hormonal imbalances from my monthly period.
I put the lump issue at the back of my mind and continued with my academics until we were asked to participate in community screening for breast cancer. A female classmate insisted on checking me out as we waited for the camp to begin. I told her in advance that I had always had a lump but that it didn’t bother me. But she insisted that I needed to have it checked urgently.
When I first received my test results, I was in my nursing students’ uniform and the pathologist who handed them to me broke the news in a very cruel manner, assuming that I was collecting the results for someone else. He said ‘Huyu patient amepatikana’ (this patient has been caught out). I remember those piercing words like it was Saturday but the pathologist did not notice that it had affected me as I walked away.
“Amepatikana na nini (what has happened to me)?” I wondered as I stealthily opened the laboratory results. I found out that I had early stage breast cancer. I was angry. My legs froze and I couldn’t walk back to class. How could I have breast cancer at 21 years?
My life was just about to begin after nursing school. How could I have breast cancer?
How was I holding results for a disease that was in my body yet I was the one who normally escorted patients for tests?
I went to the library because it was the most peaceful spot I could find and began to cry. How could this happen to me? Later, I stepped out and called my mother but the words ‘I have breast cancer’ could not come from my mouth. I was in denial. I hung up. She returned my call immediately and when I shared the news she promised to tell the rest of the family as I underwent treatment.
The diagnosis saw me begin my treatment immediately under Prof Ronald Wasike at the Aga Khan University hospital where I underwent a single mastectomy of the left breast and later went through six chemotherapy sessions and 20 radiotherapy sessions. Today, I work as an oncology nurse sharing my experiences with my patients and telling them that all is not lost.
Expert’s opinion: Patients need support during treatment
Kenya Cancer Association Vice Chairperson David Makumi acknowledges that as was the case with Lola, a cancer diagnosis comes with feelings of shock and denial. He cites the need for a strong supportive network to enable patients face the treatment and management phase of the disease.
Mr. Makumi urges all women of reproductive age to perform monthly breast self-examinations in order to catch any changes in the breasts early and thus initiate timely treatment. “The earlier the cancer is caught, the less aggressive the treatment is likely to be,” Makumi adds.
And whereas the treatment of breast and other cancers is individualised, Makumi notes that in most cases it involves a combination of approaches. Patients should be advised on the rigours of treatment to address any concerns they may have.
Second opinions are also advised as they help to confirm a diagnosis, provide insight for the patient and their family and possibly other treatment options that had not been tabled.
According to Makumi, who is also the manager of the Cancer Programme at the Aga Khan University Hospital, a cancer diagnosis results in many different feelings including fear and emotional and financial anxiety.
“Cancer is a complex and multifaceted disease. An individual needs to get social support during all stages of treatment and management. It is more than taking the medicine. The role of willpower cannot be ignored or underestimated,” he says.
He says that whereas Breast Cancer Awareness in October is nationally and globally observed, it is imperative that patients who receive a cancer diagnosis at any time of the year are offered the necessary psycho-social support.
“Breast Cancer Month comes and goes, yet cancer does not sleep! All organizations working with breast cancer patient should spread out their activities and programmes all year round so that Kenyans do not have to wait for October to think about breast cancer,” Makumi notes.
He further calls for an honest discussion with health providers on what to expect when the treatment plan has been established so that the patient’s family can plan.
“Joining a support group also widens your perspective when dealing with cancer because you get to get to learn from other people’s experiences,” he adds.
After recovery, some survivors become volunteers at the hospitals where they were diagnosed and treated like Lola.