Jacintah Njeri, 26, first felt a lump on her right breast when she was 15. She underwent two surgeries. After the second surgery, she was she told that the mass was cancerous and she had to undergo a mastectomy. Today, she is vocal about cancer awareness on her social media platforms. Jacintah, a sales agent, shares her story with Nation.co.ke.
“I was born and raised in Kakamega in a family of five. When I was 15, I started feeling a lump growing on my right breast. I assumed it was normal because I was at the peak of adolescence and my breasts were still growing. I thought it would disappear with time because there was no pain associated.
“I joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2013 to study Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
“I decided to go for my first check-up in July 2015 while in my third year of university. The doctors did a palpation (physical examination done using the fingers and palm to feel for texture, tenderness or size) and sure enough, they felt a lump. They said it was a benign tumour, meaning it was not cancerous. Unlike a malignant tumour, which is cancerous and invades nearby tissue or spreads to other parts of the body, the benign one does not.
“They advised that I should undergo surgery to have it removed. I had it done a month later in August, and that was it. No biopsy was even done to determine if it was cancerous.
“I went on with my normal routine thinking that the worst had passed. But I felt a lump on the same breast again in January 2016. It was bigger than the first one. I went to a hospital in Eldoret for a check-up. Another surgery to remove the tumour was scheduled and done that same month; only this time the tumour was taken to Lancet for tests.
“The results showed that the tumour was phyllodes, which are large, fast-growing masses that form from the periductal stromal cells of the breast. Many phyllode tumours are benign. The doctors told me that if the tumour reoccurred, I would have to undergo a mastectomy.
“Three months later in April, the tumour was back, and this time, there was redness on the breast, itchiness, rashes and visible veins. But I postponed a visit to the doctor because I really wanted to finish my fourth year of studies without any distractions.
“Luckily, I was not so far away. I went for an appointment after I completed my attachments and was told that I needed a mastectomy.
“A classmate of mine encouraged me to see a Dr. Githaiga, who is a breast cancer specialist. After tests, they found out that the tumour was malignant. I was told that the tumour was so big that it had replaced the normal tissue cells of the breast. The shock finally came; eleven years after I first felt the lump.
“I had gone for the results alone, so you can imagine how lonely it was for me – my parents were in Kakamega and I had told none of my friends that I was unwell. The oncologist advised a mastectomy, followed by radiotherapy sessions. I wondered how a young woman like me was supposed to live without a breast. It got to a point where I told my mother that I would not undergo the mastectomy.
“I underwent surgery six months later in October at the Kenyatta National Hospital. It took a long while to be performed because of the many cancer cases at the hospital. They also performed a breast reconstruction after the mastectomy. I underwent radiotherapy for a week after the surgery. Radio-therapy is brutal because I became weak, lost appetite and lost a few kilo-grammes.
“I was to have a nipple reconstructed on my breast a few weeks after being discharged but the doctors’ strike made it impossible. I have not gone since.
"In November, a month after the mastectomy, I felt a lump on my breast again and my heart sank. I told my mother about it, and after a check-up, the doctors told me that it was only a fluid accumulation which would end.
“My parents were such a great source of both financial and emotional support at this time. They never left my side. My friends, after I finally told them about my illness, also stuck by my side, encouraging me and praying for me.
“I only became vocal about my story earlier this year. I realised that sharing my story across my social media platforms encourages others going through a similar predicament, and educates at the same time.
“I started looking for a job immediately after getting discharged, something that surprised my mother. She was more afraid that the cancer would recur, but I still have faith that it will not.
“The only lifestyle change I was advised to make was watching my diet and avoiding alcohol. This was because the cause of the cancer has not been established. No one in my family lineage has ever been diagnosed with cancer.
“My diagnosis made me realise that cancer can attack anyone at any age. I always asked myself why I was diagnosed at such a young age, but now I feel that it happened for a reason – but I am yet to know why.
“It’s my greatest hope and prayer that the cancer will not recur. I also hope to use my knowledge to do more research on cancer and spread its awareness. I really would like to have a family of my own too. (Laughs).
“It is important for both men and women to know that prevention is better than cure. Screening is important and it can be done for free in some facilities.”
The Cancer Warrior story series tells the stories of cancer survivors. To share your cancer story, email [email protected]