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TALES OF COURAGE: No woman needs to go home without a breast

Friday August 4 2017

Nancy Githoitho’s mother died of breast cancer

Nancy Githoitho’s mother died of breast cancer and this inspired her to start Limau Cancer Connection which makes and distributes knitted prosthetics to breast cancer survivors. PHOTO| CHARLES KAMAU 

MILLICENT MWOLOLO
By MILLICENT MWOLOLO
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My name is Nancy Githoitho and my mission in life is to brighten the lives of breast cancer survivors. My walk with breast cancer is that of love and tears. I just lost my mother to breast cancer a month ago.

Breast cancer may have ravaged her body but the stigma ravaged her spirit.  My mother was a very strong woman and so full of life. She was very outgoing, loved life and would often go out for a dance. She also loved farming. But in May 2016, her life took a downward turn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the Coptic Hospital in Nairobi. She called me at noon to share the bad news. By 2pm, she was already depressed. Her sister, Dorcas, a cancer survivor, became her great source of support.

RETREATED TO THE VILLAGE

However, my mother was in denial. After surgery, she retreated back to the village in Kagwe, Kiambu County. She did not want other people to talk about it since she feared the stigma. Her self-esteem suffered.

Her cancer was the aggressive type and it really spread very fast to her lungs. That Sunday, June 26, before she passed on, she had come to Umoja, in Nairobi to visit my family. I was in the US. We spoke on phone but she was hiding details of her failing health, I could tell. I called a friend and sent her to see her. She informed me that my mother was looking bad, and that she had lost a lot of weight and hair. That night, she became very ill and was rushed to the nearby Emmaus Nursing Home where an ambulance was called. But unfortunately, she passed on the way to Texas Cancer Center.

WAITING FOR HER TURN

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Though her death was sudden, her circle of friends too had suffered breast cancer and some had died. It is like she was waiting for her turn. Through my mother, I discovered that the conventional prosthetics from hospitals were heavy, soggy and always sweaty. This made them uncomfortable to most of the women, my mother included. I approached the Knitted Knockers, a US based non-profit which assists cancer patients to access knitted prosthetics for free, through local initiatives.

Nancy Githoitho’s mother died of breast cancer

Nancy Githoitho’s mother died of breast cancer and this inspired her to start Limau Cancer Connection which makes and distributes knitted prosthetics to breast cancer survivors. PHOTO| CHARLES KAMAU

They agreed to assist my initiative, the Pink Warriors initiative, which is run by Limau Cancer Connection, a non-profit organisation which I am founder and CEO. Pink Warriors is a knitting circle made up of five men and 15 women. My main aim is to ensure that no woman breast cancer survivor goes back home without a breast. I would want women not to lose their self-esteem and confidence simply because they do not have a breast.

HEAVY AND EXPENSSIVE

The conventional breast prosthesis costs between Sh8000 and Sh50000; which is out of reach a majority of breast cancer survivors. It is also heavy and this makes most breast cancer survivors to look at it more as a challenge than a solution to their problems. It takes Sh1500 to make one knitted knocker, which is given for free to breast cancer survivors. The Pink Warriors is supported by Knitted Knockers, an organisation in the US which flew three of the women to Rwanda to be trained on how to knit the prosthetics by the Breast Cancer Initiative in Rwanda.

In April 2017, the Breast Cancer Initiative in Rwanda donated the knitting needles for free. Once the women knit the outer cover of the prosthesis, which comes in three sizes, it is fitted with synthetic fibre and the filling can be adjusted by the user to suit their breast. Unlike conventional prosthetics, knitted knockers can be washed clean. The Knitting Circle is something that the women enjoy as it ensures the availability of breast prosthetics for free.

TRAINING TOOL

Besides restoring self-esteem to breast cancer survivors, knitted knockers also come in handy when training on breast cancer self-examination. You just insert a bean in the fiber and let the person massage and search for it. Limau Cancer Connection is working with cancer support groups in Kijabe Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital and Nairobi Hospital to spread awareness on cancer and to ensure that the knitted knockers are available to all patients, and for free.

The Pink Warriors knitting circle is also therapeutic as it helps cancer survivors to strengthen their hand muscles. They also get to share some of the coping mechanisms that have worked for them as individuals like yoga, certain diets, and this spreads awareness among survivors on coping with the pain – both physical and psychological. They also get to share information on free screenings being carried out by hospitals and how to do self-breast cancer examination at home to ensure that any infection on the other breast is picked up early enough. This helps in early detection of cancer which ensures early treatment to lower the disease progression.

My mother’s experience just shows how the stigma surrounding cancer in Kenya robs off survivors from living their life to the fullest. However, if an initiative like Pink Warriors can team up with hospitals, corporate companies, beauticians to just make life a little fun for cancer survivors. I kindly request airlines in Kenya to partner with Limau Cancer Connection in the shipping of resources such as donated cancer reading materials to set up a cancer resource centre locally, under-the-arm pillows – which help to take away pain and strengthen arm muscles, breast cancer bras, health supplements and meditation tapes and such others which can really enrich the lives of cancer survivors in the country. There is so much out there that can help breast cancer survivors to live their lives to the fullest.

Through the Pink Warriors I intend to organise survivors meet ups, where they get to share their stories, hear from medical personnel, encourage each other, mingle and enjoy life while they can. My mother’s experience has taught me that there is so much to be done in the society to make survivors not feel like life is unfair or a death sentence for that matter. No other cancer survivor needs to withdraw from social life and await for their death, like my mother did. Women should be encouraged and supported to face breast cancer full of life and a fighting spirit.

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