Jane Frances Angalia was halfway through her PhD studies when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
Three months ago, she found out that the cancer has recurred for the third time. She refuses to give up, and is still hopeful that she will beat the killer disease.
The 52-year-old university lecturer recounts her journey.
Tell us about yourself.
I have been a cancer survivor for four years. I am the first born child in a family of four. I recently lost my parents to cancer as well. My father had prostate cancer, while my mother had liver cancer.
I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which is an aggressive and rare type of cancer. Less than 10 per cent of cancer patients are diagnosed with it.
It has no long-term cure because it is more likely to recur and spread after treatment.
Do you remember the day you were diagnosed?
Vividly. It was a Tuesday. I had had an itch under my armpit for almost two years which refused to go away even after scratching it so I went to the hospital to have it checked. I always thought the deodorant chemicals were the cause.
My breast size started increasing with time, and I thought that I was adding weight.
I consulted a classmate of mine who is also a radiotherapist, and she discovered the lump on my left breast. She asked me to undergo a fine needle assessment, but refused to elaborate on what it was for. Only the following day was I told that it was done at the cancer centre and that is when I started getting worried.
The procedure involved inserting a needle severally into the lump to take out specimens to get tested. Three days later, I went to get the results alone. The pathologist confirmed that I indeed had cancer. It was progressed, almost at stage four, meaning I had to schedule a surgery as soon as I could. He repeated the fine needle assessment just to be sure, and later took me to a surgeon for scheduling.
I was in shock, and it did not help that I was alone. I switched my phone off immediately. I did not even want to tell my mother about it seeing as we had just lost my father a year before. As I left the hospital, I remember accelerating instead of reversing my car. Luckily, I only went over the hospital’s flower bed. I had to calm down before driving. I then went to my church where I prayed all night. The priest also anointed and prayed for me the following morning when I told him about my situation. He advised me too, and this strengthened me greatly.
Did you start the treatment immediately?
I had to seek second and third opinions, seeing as my cancer had progressed. They all advised that I had to undergo many more tests to determine whether the cancer had spread to other parts of my body.
Luckily, it was only around my breast area. I also had a biopsy done to determine the treatment I would need.
They advised against surgery because the cancer cells would spread even more. This meant that I had to start chemotherapy by the end of that week. I would then proceed to surgery and radiation. The surgery was a lumpectomy, where part of my breast was removed.
The treatment took almost a year, from August 2014 until June of 2015. I waited for six months after that before travelling to India for a positron emission tomography, PET scan. They found another tumour on the same breast, which was not as aggressive. They had to remove the whole breast after this.
Three months ago, they found tumours on my right breast. The tests showed an irregular mass, as well as cysts, which are sac-like structures that are filled with fluid. I am planning a trip to India for a PET scan to determine the next step.
What gave you support during the treatment period?
Financially, it was through family, friends and harambees. It has not been easy, especially with the many trips to India.
Emotionally, it has been my family and friends. I lost my mother to liver cancer as I was being treated, and this drove me to depression. My Catholic church community has also supported me greatly. I also belong to some cancer support groups, which are very helpful because we go through everything together.
We, as cancer survivors, also recently formed an association to help each other through monthly meetings and trying to get better insurance packages.
What challenges did you face while undergoing treatment?
Apart from the financial challenges, the treatment, especially chemotherapy, was hard on my body. Luckily, my hospital had palliative care which focuses on providing relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress at any stage of the illness.
How has your view of life changed after diagnosis?
I have attended more funerals after my diagnosis than I have in my entire life.
This may sometimes dampen my spirits because most, if not all funerals are of the friends I made in the support groups.
My faith and trust in God has deepened, and I believe that he will give me more days. In the event that this does not happen, I am more strengthened to embrace death. I know that none of us will live forever.
The important thing is being aware of how I live each day, by renewing my spiritual life. I pray, and go to church, but I get more joy by visiting and encouraging patients in hospitals and homes. I am in the process of registering an organisation called My Sister My Keeper; My Brother My Keeper, with the help of friends.
What of your view of cancer?
I came to know that cancer treatment is tough; financially, emotionally and physically.
I always thought that diagnosis meant a death sentence, but I have learnt to be positive over the years. Cultivation of a positive attitude is important.
MORE ABOUT RECURRENT CANCER
Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells can remain in the body after treatment. Over time, these cells may multiply and grow large enough to cause symptoms or for tests to identify them. When and where a cancer recurs depends on the type of cancer. Some cancers have an expected pattern of recurrence. A cancer may recur in the following patterns:
- In the same part of the body as the primary cancer, called a local recurrence
- Near where the primary cancer was located, called a regional recurrence
- In another part of the body, called a distant recurrence
Recurrent cancer is named for the location where the primary cancer began, even if it recurs in another part of the body.