How my life nearly ended – until it didn’t

Saturday November 11 2017

Wamaitha Karanja, 38, found out that she was

Wamaitha Karanja, 38, found out that she was suffering an aggressive tumour disease that gave her only six months to live. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By JOAN THATIAH
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“Life as I knew it changed one cold September morning five years ago. It was a normal day at work for me when I got the news from my doctor that I had only six months left to live. I broke down right there at my desk, in the middle of our open plan office.

“They say that sometimes, life has to fall apart before it can come back together. The ‘falling apart’ had already happened. Just a year before this diagnosis, my four-year marriage had come to an abrupt end. Two months after that, I lost my job. Devastation can’t even begin to describe what I felt.

“After four months of job hunting and lots of discouraging moments, I got a job as a head hunter. Then I set onto a health and fitness journey to get back into shape, to get that revenge body so that I could feel better against the bitter break up. Things were finally looking up. This piece of news was thus shattering. It was as if I was getting knocked back down.

“My medical issues began as a painless lump under my left rib in February 2011. My first thought was that it must have something to do with all the weight I was losing. Around that time, my mother was celebrating 22 years of being free from both breast and ovarian cancer so a lump on any part of my body was cause for alarm. I went to see a doctor who conducted some tests and dismissed it as fatty tissue. In August, the lump was still there and it had become painful so the doctor did a fine-needle aspiration and diagnosed it as a dermoid cyst which, in a nutshell, is a collection of dead cells.

Though considered harmless, I underwent surgery and a 4-cm mass was removed. I thought that was the end of that.

MY WORLD CRUMBLING

“I was wrong. In May of the following year, I began feeling lethargic. I didn’t have the energy to do anything. My friends and I took a holiday to the coast and I couldn’t even swim. After this holiday I went back to the doctor and found out that I had, in fact, been misdiagnosed.

What I had wasn’t a dermoid cyst but a desmoid tumour, which are non-cancerous growths that occur in the body’s connective tissues. The initial surgery, I learnt, had barely scratched the surface.

I now had a 17cm long, over 1.5 kilogramme heavy tumour in the side of my stomach. It was sitting on my lungs. I didn’t have much time.

“My first thought following this diagnosis was that that I wanted to live. Still, staring this rare diagnosis in the face, I wanted to plan for my daughter who was barely four in the event that I didn’t make it. So I began updating my will and thinking about who would raise her if I didn’t make it. I was still in court for my divorce. It was draining.

“A second and then third medical opinion saw me getting an eight-and-a-half-hour surgery at Apollo Hospital in India. Surgery entailed removing the tumour and getting a prolene mesh put under my skin to hold my intestines together. I lost all of my left stomach muscles.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

After getting discharged I realised that life as I knew it had changed. I was now living as a person with a disability. I couldn’t lift anything weighing above four kilogrammes. I couldn’t lift my daughter. I still can’t.

My daughter couldn’t understand why Mummy was always hunched over, in pain and in bed. Coughing was painful. Laughing was painful. I stopped watching comedies.

I couldn’t drive, swim or run. It took me over eight months just to be able to walk upright. I still need to have regular check-ups.

“While I had reasons to sit around and mope, I chose not to. I wanted to live. So just a few weeks after surgery I tried going back to work but the pain was unbearable. Thankfully, my employer understood that while I was not mobile, I could still work; the company set up a home office for me complete with a phone and Internet where I worked from for eight months with full pay. As I was recovering, I became an ambassador for Pathway International, a group of doctors who advise patients on treatment options and services internationally.

“Now, five years later, I like to think that I have come a long way. While there are still bits and pieces of me that still hurt, I’ve embraced life more wholeheartedly. I love deeper, talk softer. I forgive easier and I definitely move on from things a whole lot faster.”

 

FACTS ON DESMOID TUMOURS

• Another term for desmoid tumors is ‘aggressive fibromatosis’.

• Only three out of one million people are diagnosed with desmoid tumours.

• Desmoid tumors can arise in virtually any part of the body.

• When they are aggressive, they can cause life-threatening problems or even death when they compress important organs such as intestines, kidneys, lungs, blood vessels.