Looking back on the harrowing experience of having their mothers fight breast cancer roughly two decades ago, Naomi Konditi-Kivuvani and Monica Sumbi-Matiri learned unforgettable lessons on fighting cancer and supporting others to do the same.
Having gone through the experience earlier, Naomi’s mother, the late Linda Chamberlain Konditi, offered support to Monica’s mother Wanza Sumbi when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Monica’s mother was declared disease-free 17 years ago, but Linda succumbed to the disease after a brave 14-year fight marred by three recurrences of the cancer after promising remissions.
Naomi and Monica share the lessons they learned from the experiences.
The last thing Monica expected to hear seven days after her mother had been treated for a cold was that her mother Wanza had breast cancer. There was no history of the disease in her family and she did not think either she or her mother was at risk.
Monica’s dad broke the news that a biopsy was being done to check if a lump found in her mother’s breast was cancerous. It was. But though Monica’s mum changed a bit as she fought the disease, and the brutal chemotherapy treatments, she put on a brave face that denied the magnitude of the pain she was enduring.
“On the one hand I was traumatised seeing my erstwhile jovial and energetic, do-it-all mother turn into a limp, withdrawn and almost lifeless woman; and it was hard fighting thoughts that she was going to die. But on the other hand she put up a brave fight that convinced me that she would beat the disease,” she explains.
Her mother’s strength, and her father’s persuasion that she continue building her life (because there was not much she could do at home anyway), helped her deal with the dilemma of whether to stay home with her ailing mother or enroll for her first year at university in Eldoret, many miles away.
“Mum was so strong. She called me every Wednesday at school, at a time when there were no mobile phones, to reassure me that all was well, and visited when she could just to maintain a sense of normalcy.
She never tired of taking her daily dose of Tamoxifen, faithfully for five years, until she was declared cancer-free. She fought for her life, prayed victoriously, never played the victim, never dwelt on ‘what-ifs’ and offered support to others who were battling cancer,” she remembers.
“Don’t leave me”
The one time Monica remembers her mother falter in the presence of her family was just before a chemotherapy session; her mother broke down as they left, telling them not to leave her alone.
She even pleaded with them not to take her to hospital if the cancer ever recurred because she could not bear to go through chemotherapy again. It was also hard for Monica to see and hear about the deaths of women in her mother’s support group over the years, and dealing with the thought that her mother might be next.
“Mum later told me that the hardest part was when she thought she would rather die than have a mastectomy. After she had dealt with that, she was determined to live and her battle was with the effects of the chemo,” she discloses.
Another thing that Monica and her siblings gained from their mother’s battle with cancer was the importance of a healthy diet. They especially cut back on eating meat, milk and sugar which their mother insists have cancer-causing properties.
“It is hard not to change when you are shocked into it by having someone close to you battle cancer. I would not wish cancer on anyone, but seeing my mother’s strength and triumph over it taught me lessons not only for fighting cancer, but also navigating through life,” she explains.
Naomi Konditi-Kivuvani also treasures the lessons she learnt from walking with her mother through her battle with cancer. And for her, Octobers are not just a reminder of the need to have regular health checks; they also remind her of her mum’s courageous fight against the disease, and her death nine years ago this month.
Naomi was only 11 years old when her elder brother disclosed that their mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she has never forgotten the priceless lessons she learnt in the years that followed.
“For the next 14 years I experienced every joy and sorrow that my mother went through, but the most difficult times were when the cancer went into remission twice only to recur.
“Hearing she was cancer-free, then hearing it was back…it was devastating to have celebrated for a moment thinking it was over, only to start fighting again,” she recalls.
Of her four siblings Naomi is the only one who chose to study in Kenya, and often drove her mother to doctor’s appointments.
“It hurt when somebody made a comment like ‘don’t worry everybody has to die at some point’ but being an optimist, I never entertained thoughts of death; and more so because mum taught me that no amount of drugs, chemo, or radiation can treat a patient who does not have the will to live.
“She had the greatest willpower I have ever seen, and not only did she keep herself alive with it, she helped several women (and men) go through their illnesses, especially through breast cancer support groups,” she remembers.
Naomi accompanied her mother when she visited cancer patients and it was hard watching them pass away one by one. Harder still were the times when Naomi felt helpless in her mother’s struggle with this disease.
“Sometimes I could hear my mum in pain in her room, but I could not bring myself to wake up because I didn’t know what else I could do for her. Somebody once called me lazy for getting up late, but they could never understand what I was going through so I forgave them,” she narrates.
During those times the unwavering support of her mother’s colleagues, friends and family made the fight all the more bearable for them all. She learnt then that it is the little things that stretch a cancer patient’s life beyond belief – being present and making her laugh, affirming her and taking her for a pampering sessions all strengthened her mother’s will to live.
“You cannot fight cancer alone. I remember a friend who, despite living across town, brought us meals three times a week and a couple who allowed mum to spend afternoons in a sun room with a view of a garden with birds, just to get her away from the dull routine.”
Years later Naomi sometimes worries about getting cancer, because she fits in the high-risk group, but she is not preoccupied with anxiety and feels equipped to deal with it having observed how her mother fought cancer.
“I pray that no one in my family gets a terminal illness but I always say that if one of us has to get sick, my sister should be spared. I know how to fight cancer because my mum already taught me how,” she says.
Diagnosis is not a death sentence
Cancer is not a death sentence. It can be treated successfully if detected early.
Both women and men should have proper health checks at least once a year because their lives depend on it. Some tests are free but even if you have to pay for them, it is better to do whatever it takes to have the test done.
If you are diagnosed with cancer, seek a second and third opinion. You deserve to get multiple opinions on your status and a preferred form of treatment. Doctors make errors all the time and it is our responsibility to help them treat us.
You should be able to question your doctor on anything you want, understand the treatment and all the risks and side effects involved. Research on the internet and raise anything you are not clear about with your doctor. It’s your body after all.
Surround yourself with optimists and people who love life, and eliminate people with negative energy from your circles. If you are spiritual, get into a group that prays with and for you. Your psychological and emotional strength is what carries you through.
Give back by offering support and doing little things you can to make the lives of those who are also fighting cancer better.
Diet and lifestyle are important. Avoid the things that cancer cells like to feed on — a lot of sugar, preservatives, etc. See a nutritionist so they can advise on cancer-fighting foods.
Take the time to make a person who is going through cancer laugh, and take them for pampering sessions because such little things add life to their years.