Cancer is real, l lost my my voice after scoffing at anti-smoking warnings

Robert Mwangi is a cancer survivor. He lost his voice box in a surgery meant to treat cancer of the larynx in 2010 and now uses an electronic voice box to speak. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Cigarette packets today carry stomach-churning images to warn users about the side effects to one’s health. But that has not deterred 'coughers' from filling up city smoking zones. vonne Olando, a tobacco treatment specialist, explains that “when one is addicted, they become blind to any reality that opposes the addiction.”

That majority of puffers buy single sticks and not packets does not make matters less smoky as only “those who buy packets get to see the images and it makes them think twice about smoking.”

Worse still, Kenyans view cigarette packet warning images as gimmicks. A city resident told The Nairobian that, “I don’t smoke. But I have never met a smoker who has any of the injuries depicted on those packets” while another thinks “those images are for scaring people. I don’t think it’s that bad.”

But the above Kenyans should hear the story of Robert Mwangi, who was catching up with a friend in early 2003.  The friend, an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) told Mwangi that there were some words and sounds missing his speech.

"I joked it was the alcohol of the previous night,” recalls Mwangi but the friend recommended him for a checkup.

He took him to another ENT doctor “because we had a personal relationship.” A biopsy test was recommended and the results were shocking. Mwangi had “early-stage throat cancer.”

He went through 33 sessions of standard radiotherapy treatment and that, he says, was the last time he smoked.

Dr Jeremiah Chakaya, a pulmonologist, says smoking is strongly linked to cancers that affect the respiratory system like lung, mouth and throat because “tobacco smoke has thousands of harmful chemicals that find their way into the respiratory tract and the bloodstream.” Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic and can change healthy cells to be cancerous. 

Mwangi had smoked-on and off- for about 35 years. “The first time I smoked, I was 15 years old, a Form One student,” he says. Without pocket money for lunch, he turned to smoking in turns because “I had been told that smoking killed off appetite. We smoked to mask hunger.”

His first puff was horrible. But the ‘calming’ feeling got better with time. When he got employed, he would go through 20 to 30 cigarettes a day easily, Alcohol fuelled his addiction and the more he drank, the more craved cigarettes.

After radiotherapy, his throat cancer went into remission. He was as good as healed. But in 2009, six years later, the cancer recurred. The symptoms included "too much saliva in my mouth and being constantly tired.” Surgery was recommended on the diseased part-his larynx - an organ that also carries the vocal cords - meaning he would lose the ability to speak.

The surgery was done in India, where he stayed for three months from December 24, 2010.  “I could only communicate by writing and later a voice projection machine called an electro-larynx. I bought it for Sh100,000 in India. But I could only use it after the surgery scar had healed completely.” That was six months later.   

Today, Mwangi is a survivor. But the many rounds of radiotherapy, surgery and treatment have left him permanently on prescription medicine: drugs for hormone imbalance, blood thinners (he suffered a stroke from a blood clot after surgery) and nerve medicine. “I take up to four tablets a day,” he says. “They cost me about Sh15,000 every month,”  says the man who is now a motivational speaker and a certified addiction counsellor.

Mwangi believes that cigarette smoking caused his throat cancer. Dr Chakaya explains that “In medicine, nothing is absolute. We cannot say with 100 per cent certainty that it is smoking. What we do know is that smokers are ten times – or even more – likely to contract cancer.” 

The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warns that smoking has hundreds of side effects on the health, including teeth and gum disease, impaired vision, cancer, infertility, heart disease, blood vessel damage, lung disease and bone health because “the chemicals in tobacco enter a smoker’s bloodstream and move to all organs of the body.”

Even second-hand smoke (when a non-smoker inhales secondary smoke from an active smoker) is dangerous. WHO estimates that whereas seven million lives are lost to direct smoking every year, 1.2 million lives are lost due to second-hand smoking.