One cancer survivor details her winding treatment journey, and how by making herself a deal found the faith to keep moving forward.
In the silence of the room, I caught the surgeon’s eye. He had been quiet for some time, just staring at me and back at a paper on his desk. He had asked me why I had come to see him alone, which was uncommon because my husband accompanies me for all my doctor’s appointments.
After a few minutes of staring at each other, I knew the surgeon didn’t know how to tell me that the histology tests that he was looking at showed I had cancer.
I decided to break the silence. I’m never that brave, but I did it.
“It is cancer,” I said.
“Yes, follicular carcinoma, a type of thyroid cancer,” he replied.
What followed later were words that meant nothing to me at the time. I cried uncontrollably. He tried to ask me for my phone to call my husband. I couldn’t hear him.
When you’re told you have cancer, the world around you feels like a bee nest. Actually, thousands of bee nests. Everything buzzes.
He grabbed my phone and luckily the last number called was my husband’s. He told him to come back to the hospital.
I was wailing. I wanted to tear my clothes. I threw my shoes and walked with stockings. I felt numb. I wanted to hit my head on walls or cut myself to see if I was still alive, that it wasn’t a nightmare.
My miracles started at choosing a caring surgeon. I feel like if it wasn’t for him I would be like the thousands of patients who die because they don’t know where to go next after a cancer diagnosis.
In less than one hour that I was in his office, he had booked me an appointment with an oncologist and a counsellor, which rarely happens.
The oncologist told me that I had a ‘good cancer’, that it is an easily treatable kind. That was noise to me, I told myself, “that must be how he consoles to his dying patients.”
I cried throughout, I didn’t hear much. I later learnt why it is important to be accompanied when receiving cancer news. My husband was doing the listening for me.
The second miracle was the surgeon referring me to an oncologist who understood the intrigues of public and private hospitals.
In Kenya, radioiodine treatment is only available in one government hospital that serves patients from over six neighbouring countries.
The oncologist warned us the waiting list was long. We assumed long meant one month or two.
At the government hospital, a clerk removed a black book and wrote my name on it. Then she lifted her head slightly and said I would go back to treatment in April. But they could call me earlier if I was lucky.
I should have been happy at that moment, that at least my name was in the black book awaiting treatment, but I started crying again.
It was September, and I was booked to start treatment in April the next year.
Eight months for cancer to eat my body and leave me dead, I thought.
That was in 2010.
Cancer makes you lose interest in everything. I wondered why I should shower or eat or comb my hair if I was dying in a few days anyway. I found it hard to resuscitate my maternal self and take care of my son who was eight months old then. I had stopped breastfeeding him, on doctor’s advice, as I waited for treatment.
Focusing on your death is emotionally and physically draining. You spend the nights wondering who will be at your funeral, what they will say, if your child will get a ‘saint’ for a stepmother, and thousands of bad thoughts that pitch a tent in your mind, occasionally making you anxious and miserable throughout.
One day, I realized that death from cancer rarely happens as an accident. It’s not quick. It happens slowly, so is the treatment and the physical and emotional healing that comes after.
My third miracle came a month later. My husband got a phone call from the hospital. I got a slot just after one month.
The next day I was at the hospital by 4.30 am, waiting to take a radioiodine pill.
The admission process was windy and tiresome. At 3pm, I bid my husband goodbye, it felt like a farewell, and I was ushered into a room with four men wearing hazmat suits, to protect themselves from radiation.
They removed a pill from a casing and gave it to me and another patient to swallow.
They sandwiched us and walked us to a hospital ward up the stairs, and locked the doors behind them.
It was a two-bed ward. It was old, built 13 years ago and no renovations ever done. The toilet seat was half-cracked. The nights were cold as the cracked window freely let in wind. No visitors or nurses or doctors were allowed in. The food and medicine were slipped through the door.
Being in that kind of environment for five days and nights taught me many lessons. We take for granted many things, which to some people are luxuries. When you are told you have cancer, you think that you are very sick, until you see other cancer patients.
I started focusing on the positives. My cancer wasn’t advanced, I wasn’t coughing out blood and I wasn’t being admitted in the ward for the sixth time like the other patient in the room.
At the time I prayed that if I was healed that I would renovate that ward. Cancer can give you a new purpose on earth. So, I struck a deal with God.
I told Him if I was never to be admitted to that dilapidated ward again, I’d look for money and make it comfortable for future patients. The bargain was my breakthrough. It gave me a reason to fight my hardest through treatment.
Then God granted my wish and I started wondering where I’d get $40,000 to rebuild the ward. A scan showed cancer had cleared with only one round of radioiodine treatment.
Six years later, I crowdfunded and kept my part of the bargain.
I’m 10 years cancer-free, taking thyroid hormone drugs daily, sometimes battling with post-treatment side-effects like extreme fatigue, but I will never stop focusing on the positives and finding out where they could lead.
Ms Mwango is a Thyroid Cancer Survivor and a mother-of-two. Her seven-year-old daughter was born two years after her cancer treatment. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya.