Frederick Malingu, 30, was tested to the very core when his wife, Monica Wanga Malingu 25, was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. At some point Malingu had to choose between keeping his job, the only source of income for his family, and attending to his ailing wife. His choice gave him peace of mind. Today he is a happy man and thankful to God for giving his young family a second chance. He narrates his experience to MWAURA MUIGANA.
Frederick Malingu settles down for this interview and begins his story: “I had dated my then girlfriend Monica Wanga for five years when she suddenly lost a lot of weight in 2008. While this really concerned us both, she regained some weight in 2009 and we thought our fears were unfounded. We started living together as husband and wife in 2010 and were blessed with a son in the same year. In September 2011, just as we were celebrating our son’s first birthday, Monica developed difficulties in swallowing food and also complained of a burning sensation inside her throat.
We suspected tonsillitis and visited a pharmacy for medication. She was given some medicine but her condition didn’t improve. We went to a local clinic where a doctor diagnosed her with tonsillitis and low blood pressure. She was put on different medication and they, too, didn’t help. Worried and confused, I confided our fears with a doctor who owned a clinic near the private school where I taught in Ruai, Nairobi. He too thought Monica was suffering from tonsillitis and gave her a different type of medication. These also didn’t help and out of frustration she stopped taking them.
By this time, Monica couldn’t even swallow fluids and was getting weaker because of not eating. She also complained of chest pain, backache and laboured breathing. Her life was getting miserable each day and she could not perform even simple chores in the house. I struggled between work and home, ensuring that Monica and the baby were taken care of. I kept asking for time off from work to take care of my ailing wife and this didn’t augur well with my employer.
The dreadful diagnosis
By January this year, Monica was surviving on small quantities of milk, which she struggled to swallow. A doctor at a hospital in Nairobi’s Kayole Estate did tests and ruled out advanced tonsillitis that she was being treated for. His diagnosis was narrowing of the oesophagus (food pipe), which is responsible for carrying food and liquids from the mouth to the stomach.
He referred her to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for an endoscopy to find out what was causing narrowing of the oesophagus. Tissue samples were taken from her throat and sent to the laboratory for testing. The results were devastating. Monica was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. I thank God she was not with me when this news was broken to me by the doctor, as I don’t know how she would have handled it. The doctor revealed to me that difficulty in swallowing was the most common symptom of cancer of the oesophagus and we should not have ignored it.
At the time, my knowledge of cancer was scanty. I had not had any reason to familiarise myself with the disease. Who would have thought cancer could attack at such an early age? But the little I had heard of the disease was that it kills. I was terrified at the thought of my wife dying. I had many concerns as I left hospital and top on my head was how I was going to break the news to Monica and other family members. I was also struggling with the issue of finances as the doctor had told me treatment was going to be expensive. No one is ever prepared for bad news but for me this was an unexpected torture at a time I thought my life was just beginning to shape up.
When I finally faced my wife with the truth, she was shocked, anxious and in emotional anguish. She was upset and felt that things were out of her control. She even stopped struggling to swallow the milk that was keeping her alive, perhaps feeling it was not going to save her life. I tried forcing her but this only made matters worse. Reality started hitting home after we got some counseling to help us accept the diagnosis and deal with it in a sober manner. It was then that we started looking at treatment options given by the doctor.
By this time, I was spending very little time at my job and my employer had put me on notice. He could not understand why I could not wait for school holidays to take my wife to hospital instead of doing it during term time. Though I needed my job very much to finance escalating medical bills and also take care of my family, I had to make a choice between my wife and my job. I remember the anguish I went through when one day I missed taking my wife for a doctor’s appointment, so as to show up in school and save my job.
Further tests were done to show how far the cancer had spread and she was advised to have immediate surgery. Since there was a long waiting list at KNH we thought we could have it done at a private hospital but the cost was prohibitive and way beyond us, as we didn’t have a medical cover.
Monica’s condition was deteriorating very fast. She had lost so much weight that she was all skin and bone. She had reached a point where she couldn’t even swallow saliva so he had to spit all the time. A nurse at KNH advised me to take Monica to Kijabe Mission Hospital for a procedure that would involve inserting a tube through the food pipe to the stomach to facilitate feeding before surgery could be done. The nurse was worried Monica would die out of hunger before we had a chance to get surgery done.
The procedure was pricey and this awakened me to the reality that I could not cope on my own unless I sought help from family and friends. I planned to hold a fundraiser and also approach organisations that helped cancer patients. I applied for two-weeks’ unpaid leave so as to start making fundraising arrangements, not knowing this would be the nail that would seal the coffin that was my job.
Help comes our way
The first help came from our church. Some worshippers came to pray with us and one of them was touched by Monica’s condition and helped to organise for a palliative care nurse from the Thika District Hospice to take care of my wife. The nurse not only provided the much-needed painkillers free of charge, but also employed a house-help for us, in addition to providing regular palliative care to my wife.
The church group organised a fundraiser that raised money, which enabled us seek medical help at Kijabe Hospital on January 26, this year. The surgeon at Kijabe referred us to the Nairobi’s MP Shah Hospital for a CT scan to determine the best treatment options. At the time Monica weighed a mere 39 kg. The doctor advised she needed to add some weight before she could go through a major operation. The procedure to insert the tube to her stomach was done immediately to enable her feed and gain weight.
It didn’t come to me as a shock when my employer sacked me in April this year. I had missed so many workdays but I didn’t have a choice. My wife came first. The operation to remove the tumour was carried out in May this year at Kijabe Mission Hospital. Monica was in the intensive care unit (ICU) for a week before being moved to the high dependency unit (HDU), and finally the general ward. She was discharged from hospital on May 18 after three weeks of hospitalisation. We are still paying the outstanding hospital bill and are grateful to the palliative care unit at Kijabe Hospital who have assisted us pay some of it.
The surgery involved removing part of Monica’s oesophagus and this left her with a short digestive system, which has no nerves. Despite some post-operation problems, the operation was successful. She suffered from pneumonia after the operation but this was dealt with successfully. She underwent extensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy after the operation.
We have received help from various organisations and we shall remain eternally grateful. KNH based Kenya Cancer Association referred us to Faraj Trust who offset radiotherapy costs and contributed immensely to chemotherapy costs. Monica completed radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions two months ago.
She is now recuperating at home and is on a special diet. She is able to eat moderately and we can see she is on the road to recovery. God has given my young family a second chance to be together and I am grateful as I pray for my wife to heal completely. We are now at a point where I can resume work and am looking for a job and I hope, with God’s help, I will find one soon. We are slowly picking up the pieces and we trust in God to do His will.”