Looking at Serah Mwangi, one would not tell that she has been through a health nightmare for most of the past two decades.
The 45-year-old teacher of English and literature at Afraha High School in Nakuru exudes grace and cannot hide her excitement that she will be a grandmother in a few months’ time.
“I never knew I could walk this far. The longest I could pray for was to see my daughter step into Class Three – that was when I was diagnosed with HIV after my husband died. My daughter is now a graduate and she is also expecting; I will finally hold my grandchild,” Serah said.
Her life story, as she tells it in her book, A Touch of God’s Favour, took a dark turn after she was diagnosed with HIV in 1997 soon after her husband’s death.
“I was bitter and scared. My daughter was only three years old. The stigma was beyond what I could take. The available drugs were too expensive. I was only earning Sh6,000 then and the drugs were over Sh10,000."
Even as she battled to get access to the drugs, opportunistic infections were taking a toll on her health. She contracted tuberculosis and developed an abscess on her backside. Even after undergoing surgery, she contracted another infection that led to bacterial meningitis.
“I could not afford the anti-retroviral drugs and the opportunistic diseases were hitting me hard. But I could not give up because I wanted to see my daughter through school. Lack of awareness and drugs made matters worse until 2005 when I could easily get drugs."
With her viral load managed by medication, Serah imagined the worst was over. But in 2011, she developed an obstruction in her digestive system and started bleeding.
“More devastating news was on the way – I had cancer of the vulva. The pain was too much and the mental anguish unfathomable. But I was determined to live for my children and my students,” she narrated.
Serah started chemotherapy sessions and had one surgery after another.
“I lost my hair. I lost weight. I was fighting to manage HIV and at the same time trying to outlive cancer by going through all the chemotherapy sessions. In one particular period last year I underwent three surgeries in the span of one month,” she said.
Despite the side effects that the cancer and HIV medication had on her body, she religiously took them. The medication, she said, gave her hope and strength.
“The pain of discipline is less than the pain of regrets, after all. Currently, as we speak, I was declared cancer-free in July this year. My viral load came to nil, too, but that does not mean I stopped taking the drugs. One has to be disciplined with taking drugs on time to avoid opportunistic diseases. I also go for cancer screening and follow-ups even after I was declared a survivor.”
Being diagnosed with HIV, Serah said, was not a death sentence, adding that coming up with coping strategies was the best way to manage.
“We all have dreams to live for; we have a life to live and we have to be happy. Discipline is far much better than regret."
In her book, Serah also detailed her encounters with discrimination and stigma. She said she is planning to write another book on her cancer fight.
According to her counsellor, Martina Gaa, Serah’s story of overcoming stiff odds was exemplary.
“We use her story even in some counselling sessions. To overcome all this requires discipline, prayers and grace,” Ms Gaa said.