When Mariam Bockle first sought treatment for severe pain in her shoulders in 2013, she did not think it would be the beginning of a long journey in cancer treatment.
“The first doctor I went to told me my shoulders were aching because of menopause and gave me medicine, which I took for one week, but I still felt the pain.
"I consulted another doctor at Coast Provincial General Hospital (CPGH). They did tests but they did not find anything. They referred me to another doctor who discovered I had a lump,” she says.
Her world was turned upside-down when tests revealed that she had early stage breast cancer.
The strain of the diagnosis was devastating for Mariam and her family. And despite these mixed feelings, the single mother of two struggled to be supportive to her daughter who was sitting for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination.
She also had an older son in school.
The doctor advised Mariam to undergo a mastectomy on her left breast.
“The doctor said the breast should be cut off because if I only took only medicine, the cancer could keep recurring or could even spread to the other breast,” she says.
She underwent surgery at a private hospital in Mombasa and six sessions of chemotherapy.
After a full check-up at the hospital, she began radiotherapy sessions at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Parklands, Nairobi. Mariam attended 26 cycles of the process which cost her Sh10,600 per session.
“It was a very trying moment for me. I could not work and I needed the money. I was a chef in a hotel in Mombasa, but because of my sickness, I had to quit the job and concentrate on my treatment,” Mariam says.
She later joined a support group called Breast Cancer Survivors of Coast (BRECASCO) in Mombasa.
Last year, during a breast cancer boot camp at the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa, Mariam went for a routine check-up optimistic that she was healthy and well.
But she received devastating news. “The doctor said I had a lump on the [right] breast. More tests were done and I tested positive for cancer, again. I easily accepted to undergo another operation [to remove the breast].”
It is now a month since Mariam, 56, finished eight cycles of chemotherapy and she is preparing to undergo 30 radiotherapy sessions.
Mariam now gives inspirational talks to cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment.
“I am strong and still keep faith in God. Losing one or both breasts to cancer does not deprive one of their womanhood. For the ailing women, I also make them understand that having cancer is not the end of everything,” she says.
Mariam encourages cancer patients and survivors to be positive and talk about their journeys so they can encourage one another.
“Sometimes it only takes a bold step to speak about our problems so as to get help. For the victims recovering from cancer, they should live a healthy lifestyle and eat the food instructed by the doctor,” she adds.
She says she is taking life positively.
Mariam was gifted breast prostheses by a friend, but sometimes she even walks without them – she is still proud of herself even after her mastectomy.
Last Saturday, 56-year-old Mariam joined about 500 women and men in Mombasa in a breast cancer awareness walk organised by Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa.
Speaking after the walk, head of outreach at the hospital, Dr Sultana Sherman, said that the big turnout was a representation of a major shift in attitude that people had about cancer 15 years ago.
“We are seeing many women coming in for check-ups. They are also becoming aware of what a lump is and what to do if they see or feel it in their breast,” Dr Sherman says.
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