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TALES OF COURAGE: How cancer and alcoholism led me to my destiny

Thursday March 7 2019

Gillian Mutinda, a motivational speaker and a marketer by profession.

Gillian Mutinda, a motivational speaker and a marketer by profession, is also a cancer survivor. PHOTO | KAREN MURIUKI 

KAREN MBUYA MURIUKI
By KAREN MBUYA MURIUKI
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Gillian Mutinda, 31, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, also known as bone cancer, when she was 20. She beat the disease two years later, but soon afterwards slipped into depression. She turned to alcohol and became dependent on it for six years until she was finally checked into rehab. The motivational speaker and a marketer by profession talks to Nation.co.ke about her journey of recovery.

 

“Growing up, I was constantly falling sick, yet no diagnosis could be made. In my third year of high school, I was finally told I had anaemia, after which treatment began.

Right after I finished high school, I started experiencing pain in my left hand, which felt like a sprain. I didn’t think much of it. I decided to seek medical advice after two months of no change. The doctor diagnosed me with arthritis and prescribed medication, which I took religiously. There was no change a month later.

I went to see another doctor who said it was simply a sprain. He gave me an ointment to rub on the shoulder and some pain killers but the pain was still the same.

By this time, I had been accepted at the University of Curtin in Australia to study law. In July, my elder sister recommended an orthopaedic surgeon because none of the doctors we had seen had been of any help.

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I had just turned 20 at the time, so I went by myself. The first thing the surgeon asked me was if I was alone, and if so, how I got to his office because I looked so pale. He ordered for some urgent tests and asked me to go back the following morning in the company of my mother.

My mother and I went in the following morning and I was in so much pain that I could not even raise my left hand. The doctor gave me a pain killer and asked only my mum to go into his office. When she came out hours later, she only told me to call my father and sister to let them know that they were urgently needed in the doctor’s office. They came almost immediately and I was left at the reception alone again. I remember joking in my head that I might have cancer. (Laughs).

DETERIORATE

Finally, I was called in and the doctor calmly told me that I had a tumour. He said I had to come in for admission the following morning in order to have a biopsy done to determine whether it was cancerous or not.

This was in July of 2008. All I knew about cancer then was from the movies.

Funny enough, my health deteriorated after seeing this doctor. I was in such excruciating pain when I got home that they decided to rush me back to hospital. I collapsed as soon as I got there. I was admitted immediately and the biopsy was done the day after just as was planned. The results would take 11 days to come out because the tumour was on the bone. I had to be admitted for that period.

The results revealed that I had osteosarcoma between my shoulder blade and upper arm, and it was in its third stage. We had to discuss treatment options immediately and the doctors said they might have to amputate it. I somehow expected the news. I had seen it on the doctors’ faces by the fifth day.

I started chemotherapy that first week and it was so brutal that all my hair fell off. I was discharged soon after but I was back in the hospital a few days later because my shoulder started bleeding profusely. By the second round of chemotherapy, my family decided to seek further treatment for me in India. My visa to Australia had to be cancelled. My family helped me apply for one to India while in a hospital bed.

We left for India at the beginning of August and the doctors there confirmed my diagnosis. I was put on a high dose of methotrexate, after which patients, once completing the dose, are normally taken to the ICU. I responded so well that the doctors were amazed.

I underwent chemotherapy for three months after that. My doctors said that the cancer cells were lodged in such a way that they could not operate on the tumour. Because of that, the bone, muscle and tissue around the proximal humerus had to be removed and replaced with titanium.

HEALING

Tests done afterward revealed that I was cancer free, and I cannot explain the joy I felt. I was required to stay for post-cancer treatment but I literally begged the doctors to have it done in Kenya. I was really homesick. Luckily, they agreed, but on condition that the doctor giving the treatment would follow their course to the latter.

By the third round of treatment, I was so sick that I had wounds in my stomach and mouth. This meant that I could barely eat. My weight dropped from 60 to 24 kilogrammes. I lost all my hair again. We were almost sure that the cancer had recurred. I knew that this was the end for me and that I would die.

My family decided to take me back to India. My doctors there could not even recognise me. But as it turned out, the referred doctor in Kenya failed to follow the course of treatment and so it reacted badly with my body. In a week, I was stabilised. I was gaining my weight and growing my hair back. I came back home in November of 2009. Since then, I have been going for a check-up once every year.

I joined USIU in 2010 to pursue International Business and Marketing. But I turned to alcohol to numb the feelings and emotions that came with the trauma of the cancer I had survived. I should have gone for therapy as soon as possible…

Yes, I was grateful I survived, but I wondered why God kept me alive instead of the friends I made during treatment. I was resentful that I had lost two years of my life, yet my peers had progressed in different ways. I also felt guilty that my parents had to spend millions of shillings on my treatment, yet I had other siblings that needed to be taken care of.

I would often visit the paediatric cancer ward in Kenyatta National Hospital and would always end up feeling responsible for those little children, just because I was a survivor.

ADDICTION AND RECOVERY

I was still drinking heavily even after graduating in 2013. I should have been dealing with the emotions and the post-traumatic stress. After six years of this self-destruction, my family checked me into rehab in 2016. I have always thought how funny it is that people would expect cancer to follow alcoholism yet it was the complete opposite for me.

Rehab made me realise that I had a far greater purpose and that it was up to me to realise and serve it. My purpose is to give people strength and hope; and to be the torch bearer of alcohol addicts, cancer survivors and those who have undergone traumatic experiences I can relate to. This is why I started motivational speaking.

Despite surviving the cancer, a few complications arose after treatment. The doctors failed to tell us that the titanium replacement on my shoulder was not a permanent solution because in 2011, three years after it was first put in, I had to go back to India. I was in so much pain that we thought the cancer had recurred.

Apparently, it was a dislocation of the prosthesis which had to be replaced. The same thing happened in 2017, and the prosthesis was changed in November of the same year. However, the pain did not go away and months later, in May of 2018, we decided to seek alternative options.

We found an orthopaedic surgeon from Cape Town who specialises in shoulder replacement, something we realised we should have done earlier. I flew there a few weeks later, in June, and had the prosthesis replaced.

I am currently doing physiotherapy, and I am yet to go back to work. This last surgery has made me emotionally stronger and motivated in my advocacy.

The fear of recurrence is definitely there, but that attitude is changing with each passing day. And I am constantly grateful to be a survivor.”

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