Sally Kwenda is made of steel. She is not easily fazed. This is the reason why she can afford a broad smile as she gives hope to cancer patients at a sensitisation forum in Nakuru.
The 50-year-old is not your ordinary cancer advocate, she has courageously fought three cancers - cervical, colon and rectum - and has undergone 13 surgeries.
Still, Kwenda remains strong, positive. “Cancer is not a death sentence, if it were, I would have died long time ago,” she says.
The survivor was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2007 after participating in a cancer sensitisation initiative conducted by her former employer, a non-governmental organisation. On that day, a doctor walked to the waiting bay and told her she had cervical cancer.
“I was confused, traumatised, yet the doctor had been casual, saying, ‘uko na cancer’. I was filled with emotions,” she says.
A doctor recommended she goes for surgery at the Aga Khan University Hospital. Thankfully, the procedure was successful. To avoid spread of cancerous cells, the doctor advised that Kwenda’s uterus and womb be removed.
She was reluctant to undergo the surgery as it would render her barren, yet she did not have a baby. Psychologists and cancer survivors counseled her and in March 2007, she had surgery at the same hospital.
Kwenda was then scheduled for regular checkups at the private facility. In 2010, she suffered constipation and after a checkup, was found to have cancer of the colon.
This time as well, doctors recommended surgery. A section of her colon was to be removed. The cancerous cells, according to medics, were spreading.
Kwenda grew weak, her immunity was low. She suffered depression, and it took intervention of doctors to keep her going, and this she did until a year later when she was too diagnosed with cancer of the rectum.
Being diagnosed with a third type of cancer was heart-breaking. Doctors did a colostomy on her. It was successful.
Managing her condition was costly, but Kwenda was grateful that the cost each of the three surgeries, about Sh500,000 was catered for by the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), and medical cover offered by her former employer.
In 2016, she was on remission after having brilliantly and courageously fought three cancers. Despite being an inspiration to cancer survivors, Kwenda suffers stigma from her peers and society at large because she is childless.
“People ask me about my children and family during sensitisation meetings. I smile and proudly talk about myself but deep inside, I cry. I wish my womb could carry a baby,” she says.
Whenever this happens, her memory goes to 1997, when she gave birth but the baby died after only two months.
She had a second in 1999, but the baby too died after seven months. By then, she had grown weak and had low blood levels, and had to be admitted at the Coast Provincial General Hospital.
She was soon to learn that she had contracted HIV, and that her babies might have been born with the virus.
Today, Kwenda wears colostomy bags daily for hygienic purposes and she says they are not easily available in Kenya.
An imported colostomy bag costs between Sh800 and Sh1000, whereas those supplied by the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority go for between Sh100 and Sh300.
For one to observe proper hygiene, they must use at least two bags daily. Kwenda is a member of Stoma World Kenya, a support group of colostomy that gets donations from Canada.
Though the organisation supplies colostomy bags to cancer survivors, it is lobbying the government to provide quality bags at subsidised prices. “Survivors of cancer struggle to get these bags, the government should advocate for early screening and treatment of the disease,” she says.
The cancer warrior has taken to sensitising the public on the deadly disease. She advocates for regular screening for earlier diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and asks people living with HIV and AIDs to take ARVs to boost their immune system.
“Treating cancer is expensive even to patients covered by NHIF. Some people have to sell their property to afford treatment,” she says.
Dr Elias Melly, an oncologist and proprietor of Alexandria Cancer Centre and Palliative Care Hospital says regular screening can help diagnose cancer at an early stage. “Cancer can be treated and patients should not give up, there is hope in its treatment,” he says.
“Food is medicine and boosts the immune system. Those with cancer of the colon should avoid red meat because meat boils down to cholesterol, which is not good for our health.”
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