It’s a cold July night in Karatina,
Nyeri County. One of the coldest nights the residents have experienced in a while. Rosemary Mwangi and her husband are cuddled together in bed so as to draw warmth from each other, giving credence to King Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “Two are better one… if two lie down together, they will keep warm.”
But it was in the process of this cuddling that Rosemary’s husband found a lump in her left breast. The year was 2009.
“My husband, clearly troubled, asked what that was and since I didn’t know what he was talking about, I wanted to jump out of the bed thinking there was an insect. He told me to relax and feel my breast and I did. It felt like a stone and I was shocked for I had never detected it,” explains Rosemary.
She had read and heard about breast cancer but she had never thought that she would one day be diagnosed with it. But even with the stark reality that there was a chance the lump could signal breast cancer, she laughed it off and assured her husband that it was nothing.
Her sister had had the same scare a few years back and it turned out to be fatty tissues; nothing that couldn’t be sorted with a few medications. She told her husband as much.
However, her husband didn’t want to take any chances and urged her to see a doctor the following day. On that note, they cuddled up to sleep but with uncertainty in both their minds.
The following morning, Rosemary found an excuse for not visiting the doctor and it wasn’t until two weeks later that she finally gathered enough courage to see one.
“After a lot of procrastination, I finally saw a doctor who took samples from the lump for a biopsy. He asked us to go back after two weeks for results. Again, I put the lump at the back burner and proceeded on with life unperturbed. The result came out but it wasn’t clear and the doctor couldn’t outrightly say whether the lump was cancerous or not. But one thing he was sure of was that the lump had to go,” recollects the 44-year-old.
Rosemary was thus referred to a surgeon, who quickly booked her for surgery to remove the mass. To her, it was just a lump that once removed; her life would go back to normal. And it did, but only for a short while.
“After the lump was removed, I stayed in hospital for three days before being discharged. The doctor told me they would take the lump for testing and that I should go for the results after two weeks. The wound healed fast and I was able to continue with my normal routine of tending to the farm and livestock. But a fluid that was coming out of the healing wound had me worried,” Rosemary explains.
Again, she ignored the fluid but she would be roused from this stupor when she went for the results. After picking the results, which was sealed in an envelope, she sought out her friend whom she says understood medical terminologies.
The friend gingerly took out the papers and all Rosemary saw was ‘sarcoma’ written in red and she knew it meant cancer. She didn’t even wait for the friend to read the rest of the contents; for her that was a death sentence.
Meanwhile, her friend was finding it hard to balance her tears and would occasionally dash outside to cry. Her friend then told her she had been referred to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for treatment.
Together, they went to KNH where the oncologist sent her for several tests. The doctor reviewed the results and told her that her case wasn’t serious and that a few chemotherapy sessions would kill the cancer cells hence no need for a mastectomy.
She didn’t want to take chances this time around especially with severity of the matter and sought a second opinion. A doctor family friend referred her to a breast surgeon who after reviewing her file was saddened that the cancer had not been handled well.
He took her hand and asked her to feel her left breast, the one that had earlier been operated on. There was another lump! The doctor told her they had to move fast to remove the breast and the sooner, the better.
She was asked to return the following day with a deposit of Ksh 60,000 for surgery, but she had already spent all the family’s savings on tests and previous treatment. Back home, the news had spread like wild fire. Apart from her family, her strongest support system
was a women’s group – Saidiana Single Mothers Group – who quickly assembled and fundraised for her treatment.
“These women have stood by me in ways I cannot fathom. On that day when I travelled back home, I met the women waiting for me ready with the money. At home, I downplayed the illness in front of my children as I did not want them to be traumatised,” says the mother two.
So the following day Rosemary checked in at KNH ready for her left breast to be removed. To those around her, she was a strong woman, as the operation didn’t seem to unnerve her.
But inside, questions crisscrossed her mind, for instance, how was she going to live without one breast as a woman? She had heard of women whose husbands had abandoned them because of cancer and she feared she might suffer the same fate.
She was wheeled into the theatre with the questions still lingering on her mind. The surgery was a success and she was discharged from hospital after 10 days.
“I started chemotherapy two weeks later and a friend, Rose Kamau, used to accompany me to all these sessions. After chemotherapy, I underwent radiotherapy for another 30 days and the cancer went into remission,” she says.
Rosemary is now involved in breast cancer awareness programmes and has been instrumental in giving hope to other cancer patients. She is very grateful to her husband, as well as her father and friends who have walked with her the journey.
She is also grateful to the government for the revamped National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) that has been a boon to cancer patients. However, she hopes the government will purchase a PET scan machine so as to speed up diagnosis and prevent misdiagnosis.
Sad twist of fate
Towards the end of 2011, Rosemary held a thanksgiving party for her friends whose unwavering support made the cancer battle bearable. The year 2012 started with a resolve to put the cancer nightmare behind her and she faced life with renewed vigour.
However, her newly found peace would soon be shattered when cancer reared its head again in 2013 but this time round she wasn’t the target; her father was! Her father, Gerald Kimangu, was then 70 years old and enjoying retirement when the cancer hit.
“I was taking a shower one day when I felt something hard on my left breast. From my daughter’s experience, I knew what breast cancer was but I always took it as women-only disease. However, I made a mental note to inform my doctor during my next appointment,” remembers the 73-year-old.
His doctor referred him to an oncologist who, after several tests, confirmed their worst fear – he had stage II male breast cancer. He had to go under the knife to remove his left breast before the cancer spread to other parts of the body.
When his daughter was battling the disease, Kimangu was always by her side. It was now Rosemary’s time to return the favour and as Kimangu explains, she has outdone herself.
“I knew my way around KNH. I had made friends with the staff and so when I took my father for treatment, we didn’t have trouble. So the period between my father’s diagnosis and surgical treatment was short. Of course, finance was still a problem that we had to sell some of my father’s properties so as to meet the cost of treatment,” Rosemary adds.
As with Rosemary, Kimangu’s left breast was removed and a scar is there to show for it. He went through six chemotherapy sessions and 30 days of radiotherapy and was good to go, but only for a while.
As he was recuperating from the side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, he experienced a debilitating pain on his hip. A bone marrow scan revealed that the cancer had spread to most of the bones in his body qualifying it to be a stage IV cancer.
He was back to square one. With his daughter’s support, he went through the second cycle of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and is currently under medication. It doesn’t help that he is also diabetic and has high blood pressure, but he is optimistic to win this battle.
“I told my father he has to be strong, if not for himself then for me. I must admit he is doing quite well for someone his age. My mother passed on in 2012 so I asked him to come and stay with my family so that I can look after him. At least here I can be sure he is well fed and taken care of. My husband, Lawrence Mwangi, is very supportive and I can truly say he is one of a kind,” Rosemary says in conclusion.