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I will conquer breast cancer despite the odds

Saturday October 12 2019

BREAST CANCER

Jane Frances speaks about her journey with breast cancer during an interview at Nation Centre in Nairobi on October 9, 2019. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOAN THATIAH
By JOAN THATIAH
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Jane Frances, a 53-year-old lecturer, was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago.

The cancer altered her life forever. As she fundraises for yet another surgery, she talks about survival, hope and acceptance.

"Five short years ago, I was seeking self-actualisation; I had gotten right to the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

At 48, I was a communications lecturer and was right in the middle of my Ph.D. course. Now, I am just grateful to go to sleep and wake up in the morning. A cancer diagnosis completely altered my outlook on life.

Two years before that fateful Tuesday in June 2014 that changed my life, as I knew it, I began having an itch under my left armpit. I didn't think much of it.

When it persisted, I went to the hospital and was given an ointment. The itch returned. I went back and got another ointment. This back and forth happened a few times.

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DIAGNOSIS

Meanwhile, I was busy grading papers, giving lectures and then going to school keen on getting my doctorate before I turned 50.

Then I was diagnosed with stage 3B of an aggressive Triple Negative breast cancer (triple-negative means that the three known types of receptors that fuel cancer growth, Estrogen, Progesterone, and the HER-2 gene are absent in the tumour, so there is no known cause).

The cancer being that advanced meant that I had to start chemotherapy immediately. Three days after my diagnosis, even before I could come to terms with it, I lay in a hospital bed, a cocktail of drugs designed to kill the mass that was growing in my breast dripping in my veins. I got so sick that weekend that I had lost seven kilograms by Monday.

Having a background in communication means that in every situation, I like to have all the information. When I began my treatment, I asked my doctor for all the information regarding my case.

Would I be able to continue lecturing? Would I be well enough to finish my Ph.D.? He told me that if I could survive breast cancer for five years, I would be ready to go on with my life. I took a five-year leave of absence.

PAYING BACK

It has been five years of battling this monster. Seven surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiotherapy later, I cannot say that I am quite ready to go back to my life as it was.

I have a new life now that entails reading and researching all things cancer so I can pass this information on to other people who are diagnosed with cancer. This is how I pay back all the good that has been done to me.

On a regular day, you will find me either in one of the four cancer support groups that I helped set up, hand-holding another cancer patient through their treatment journey, or selling healthy food supplements to help cater for my treatment.

My diagnosis changed my life in many ways. Other than the numerous hospital visits and the huge chunks of time spent in recovery, it made me overly conscious of anything I consume.

I quickly swapped all the junk food for healthier, organic options and swapped my plastics for glass.

THERAPY

I lived alone at the time. Realising that I couldn't possibly beat this alone, I rented out my house and moved back in with my mother.

In the last half of 2014, I had six rounds of chemotherapy and then surgery to remove the cancerous tumour from my left breast.

Chemotherapy can be draining physically, emotionally, and of course financially. I would get so sick after every session and would still need to replenish in time for the next session because the hospital can't give it if you are too sick.

In 2015, I went through 30 sessions of radiotherapy to kill any surviving cancer cells in my chest. The effects of radiotherapy were even worse than chemotherapy.

My whole chest and arm region took a beating; my skin looked charred from it. My mother sat with me every day, making sure that I took all the medication, that my strength was replenished after every sickly session.

In 2016, the cancer started growing again and my doctor recommended that I travel to India for a total mastectomy. Then, in April, just a month before we travelled for my surgery, my mother who now doubled up as my caregiver suddenly passed on due to liver cancer that was caught too late.

BOTCHED SURGERY

Her passport still sits at my bedside. I travelled in August the same year with another family member for the total mastectomy of my left breast.

In 2017, four months after this surgery, I began coughing incessantly. Tests showed that I had developed lymphedema, which is an accumulation of fluid in the body and a common side effect, and I needed to get surgery to drain this fluid and to get a shunt that would allow this fluid to drain in the bloodstream in the future.

By this time, I had long exhausted my savings. I had also sold several pieces of land and serviced apartments that I rented out which I had acquired over the years.

My three siblings stood in the gap for me and when they could not, I reached out to my friends and course mates and their response was overwhelming.

In April 2017, I got breast reconstruction surgery at a local hospital. My doctor advised that having this done would protect my heart and lungs, but the surgery went bad and I had to get three more surgeries to fix it later that year.

HOPE

I like to think that I have seen it all. I have been knocked down and gotten back many times, but I am grateful that I am still alive because this means that there is still something here on this earth that I need to do.

I hope to go back to lecturing one day and to go back to school for my PhD.

For now, though, I need to travel back to India for specialised diagnostics because my Birads score, which are the cancer markers in my body, are rising.

My heart is also swelling and my left-hand lymphedema is still not under control. I have been fundraising online for the Sh3 million I need for treatment but I am still a long way off."

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