Where cancer patients knit themselves out of stigma and rejection

Fridah Kambayi, 50, displays prosthesis knitted by Uzima Foundation for women who have undergone mastectomy (breast removal). [Mercy Kahenda, Standard]
It was the most difficult moment in Ms Gladys Wanjiru’s life when a doctor walked to her hospital bed and broke the news that she has cancer.

Wanjiru, 35, was confused. She had patiently and anxiously waited for three weeks to know what was ailing her after developing a lump on her breast. She had undergone biopsy at Naivasha Hospital.

“The mention of cancer was like death sentence to me. I wished the heavens could swallow me right there. How would I manage the disease that was killing so fast?” recalls Wanjiru.

The trouble did not end there. Her husband rejected her when he learnt she was to undergo mastectomy. She had no shoulder to lean on at a time she needed moral support the most.

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She lost self-esteem, and would lock herself up in the house due to the stigma.

“I kept to myself and grew weaker each day. In only shared with a few friends about having been diagnosed with cancer,” says Wanjiru.

One day as she walked to the oncology department at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru for a chemotherapy session, she met a group of women who were uncharacteristically happy despite being cancer patients.

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The women introduced her to their organisation, Uzima Foundation, took her under their wing and gave her the much-needed solace. It is all Wanjiru needed, her self-esteem soon began to improve. “It had taken me long to accept my condition, especially after having my breast removed. I had low esteem but was overjoyed when I met individuals who I could relate with,” she says.

Uzima Foundation is a cancer association group established in February this year, with a membership of about 60 women. It’s main aim is to support women living with cancer. Of the 60 members, at least 40 are individuals diagnosed with breast cancer, majority of whom have undergone mastectomy.

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The group knits temporary prosthesis using locally sourced materials. The prosthesis are distributed among women who have undergone mastectomy.

Wanjiru says before she joined Uzima Foundation, she would wrap together rags and wear in place of her breast. At the group, however, she was given a prosthesis and she soon regained her confidence and self-esteem.

Sarah Muchiri, a member of the group, says a number of women get dejected after undergoing mastectomy.

“We formed the group to support a number of women who were silently dying of cancer and give hope to those who face stigma and rejection from society,” says Muchiri.

Traumatising

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After coming together, the group realised they needed artificial prosthetics. But they could not afford the ones sold at Sh25,000 a pair. That is when they began to buy the raw materials, including cotton thread, fibre and needle, and got down to work, knitting themselves out of stigma, rejection and self-empathy.

“Losing a breast is the most traumatising thing a woman can ever undergo. Our pain and lack of a better option made us come up with idea of knitting our own prosthetics,” says Muchiri, a mother of three.

The artificial bras are distributed among the members and the rest are sold at Sh2,000 each.

The money from the sale of the items is used to purchase drugs for members and support others to enroll for the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF). The group is, however, yet to get better market for the prosthetics.

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