Error that cost me my breast
Posted Friday, October 2 2009 at 19:00
- As we mark world breast cancer month, we bring you the inspiring story of 31-year- old Josephine Muthoni, who had a mastectomy when she was just 21.
Even though the evidence was right there in front of her, her brain stubbornly refused to register the fact that she had just lost one of her breasts.
For 21-year-old Josephine Muthoni, losing such an intimate part of her body was a frightening prospect that she just could not fathom how she could continue living.
“It felt like a part of me had just died, and I wished that the rest of me would die too so that I wouldn’t have to face the reality of living with one breast,” recalls Josephine, then a second year medical student at Moi University, Eldoret.
She had just had a mastectomy, (surgical removal of one or both breasts) after doctors discovered a cancerous lump in her right breast.
Interestingly, Josephine had noticed the lump about a year-and-a-half earlier and out of concern, had consulted a doctor, who brushed it off as a benign tumour assuring her that she had nothing to worry about.
This allayed her fears, but only for a while because each time she felt her breast, the lump seemed to be getting bigger. When she could no longer ignore the fear that kept resurfacing, she decided to consult another doctor, David Mathews, a visiting American medic who was then teaching at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital.
After feeling the lump, he recommended an immediate mammogram, but the only hospital with a mammogram machine then was Kenyatta National Hospital, and it had broken down. The only other option was to have the lump surgically excised and studied by a pathologist to determine whether it was cancerous or not.
The following day, Josephine had minor surgery to remove the lump. A week later, the results were out. “I tried not to be worried about the outcome of the results, and hoped that the tumour was harmless when I walked into Dr. Mathews’ office to pick the results,” says Josephine.
But when she walked out a few minutes later, she was shattered. The doctor’s words still ring clear as if they were uttered yesterday – “There are no two ways of saying this...the lump is cancerous…”
To eliminate any doubt, several pieces of the tumour had been sent to different pathologists for analysis, and they had all given a similar verdict. There was only one course of action - surgical removal of her right breast, as well as the surrounding lymph nodes.
“I was numb, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it sounded so unreal. How could I have cancer? I was only 21 after all...,” she trails off.
After the surgery, she took a month off school to recuperate in her parents’ home in Nyahururu, Central Kenya. “Everything had happened so fast, that I barely had time to process what was happening to me…one minute I had a lump in my breast, the other I had no breast. That month was one of the most trying periods of my life.” She was convinced that she would die, and even contemplated quitting university.
“I did not know much about breast cancer, or any other cancer for that matter. But I knew that it was a terminal disease and that meant only one thing: I would die. I did not see the point of studying if I was about to die anyway,” she says.
Her father had absorbed the news with characteristic calmness, telling her that a breast “isn’t that important” while her mother had quickly offered her daughter all the support she needed.
However, not even her parents’ reassurance was enough to take away the gloom that had suddenly descended upon her.
Though she eventually agreed to resume her studies, it took her a while to muster the enthusiasm to learn once again. “I sat through classes like a zombie; unable to concentrate on anything I was being taught. When that semester came to a close, I wasn’t surprised to be at the bottom of the performance list.”
The fact that her then boyfriend had ended their relationship when he learnt about her surgery was also weighing her down. He ‘couldn’t deal with what had happened’ so he called it quits.
“At that point, I believed that no man would ever want a woman like me, a woman with one breast, and each time I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I was convinced that I would spend the rest of my life alone. I had lost the will to live.”