When Esther Wakabare Muthike started having a urinary discharge in May 2004, she at first dismissed it as an ordinary infection that would clear off in a few days.
“I was feeling pain in my lower abdomen and because I was ashamed of going to the hospital, I stayed at home,” says the mother of five and grandmother of 15.
Esther, now aged 81, was born in Kianguenyi village but now lives in Kiangombe village, which is in Kirima location, Kerugoya sub-county, Kirinyaga County.
The discharge later grew into a smelly, sticky liquid with pus and blood. At this point, she could no longer hide the discomfort and had no choice but to tell her daughters what was bothering her.
“When we noticed Mum was sick, we made enquiries on what she was suffering from and after she told us, we took her to Kerugoya Referral Hospital,” said her daughter Susan Wanjiku, 40.
After a series of tests, the medics at Kerugoya told the family to take the ailing widow to Kenyatta National Hospital.
“We could not, however, afford to take her to KNH as per the referral because we did not have enough money. But hope beckoned a few days later when a medical camp was held at the Kerugoya Stadium grounds,” Susan told the Saturday Nation.
It was here that the family was to meet Benda Kithaka, who founded the cancer advocacy, awareness and treatment lobby Women 4 Cancer Early Detection and Treatment, with her friends Dr Njoki Njiraini, Liz Mbuthia (a nurse), and Cathy Wacira, a lawyer.
“After seeing my sister get diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated before successfully having children, I decided to do something to ensure that other women in the same circumstances could also access screening and treatment so as to continue living healthy, productive lives, says Ms Kithaka.
“Luckily, for my sister, the cancer was at stage one, and she was treated in time. She later went on to successfully have children. I decided to establish an organisation that would assist as many women as possible to also get screened and treated for cervical cancer before the disease reaches an advanced stage where it is difficult to treat, said Brenda, 44.
After the diagnosis, Esther spent the next 17 days at the cancer ward in KNH undergoing radiotherapy.
Having completed the procedure, she was given two weeks to recover before returning for another eight days of chemotherapy, and a follow-up visit to check on her progress on December 5, 2015.
“All this time, we were staying at a house in Kawangware that had been rented for us by the late cancer warrior and patient rights’ advocate Rose Chiedo,” says Susan.
Her mother was not out of the woods just yet.
“After just one session of chemotherapy, my mother’s blood supply once again ran out. We took her to a hospital in Kawangware. She needed a transfusion of four pints of blood followed by a period of rest to allow her blood levels to get back to normal,” said Susan, who was her mother’s caregiver at that difficult time.
“It was so heartbreaking to see my beloved mother in so much pain. At times I would find myself in tears as I watched her writhing in agony on that hospital bed, wondering what we had done wrong to deserve such,” she recalls.
After two more visits in May and July 2016, Esther was finally discharged from the treatment programme at KNH on February 8, 2017.
The subsequent recuperation period was another marathon of agony as the patient slowly fought her way back to a pain-free life.
She was relatively free from pain for around three months before it returned with renewed vigour.
When the pain became unbearable, the family took Esther to Kerugoya Hospital on September 18, 2017, but were referred to Nyeri Hospice.
“We would take her to the hospice once every three months and make sure she took the medicine prescribed for her by the medics, which included opioids. She also needed adult diapers during that period because she was unable to move from her bed, says her niece Monica Wanjiku, 30.
All that came to an end one day in early November 2017. Her daughter credits the dramatic change in her status to her strong Christian faith.
“I had been bedridden for several months and had even developed bedsores, which left me in constant agony. One morning as I lay in bed, I offered a prayer to God asking him to help me get off the bed and once more enjoy life as a normal aged individual. I am so grateful that he answered my prayer and I managed with great difficulty to move to a seat beside my bed,” says Esther.
Susan describes her mother’s recovery as nothing short of a miracle.
“We returned from our businesses at the market one Friday afternoon and were shocked to find her calmly seated beside her bed. It has been a much more comfortable life for the family ever since she resumed her ability to walk and even do a few household chores like sweeping the front yard in our compound, she says.
Esther is now a regular visitor to Nyeri Hospice, where she goes for regular doses of pain medication.
The cancer has not recurred, and she is now on the road to full recovery.
“Thanks to strict adherence to the recommended diet and medication, Mum has not had another serious episode of pain that required her to be hospitalised. She is currently happy and at peace with herself, says a beaming Susan.
Because of a problem with acidity in her digestive system, she no longer takes foods that are high in acids, including sukuma wiki and foods with lots of pepper. Soda and other refined, sugary drinks are off the menu.
Esther now lives on a diet of traditional foods like githeri, mukimu, porridge, local greens, milk and lots of fruits.
“I eat the kind of foods my parents raised me on, as I herded cows and goats in my early years. The less refined foods I eat, the better for me,” she says.
According to Dr Mary Nyangasi, head of the Cancer Control Programme, cervical cancer is “100 per cent preventable” through vaccination, screening and treatment.
“Cervical cancer is the leading cause of death in women in Kenya. Only 16.4 per cent go for screening. People need to present early to prevent cervical cancer,” she said at an October 3 media round table organised by Women 4 Cancer.
Benda says African women are the least screened in the world compared with their counterparts in the West who are regularly reminded by authorities to go for screening and treatment if diagnosed with the disease.
“Women in our country seem to be preoccupied with what they consider more pressing matters like career progression, business activities and taking care of their families while ignoring the simple but crucial procedure of going for a cervical cancer test at least once a year. Through our organisation, we are determined to make cervical cancer screening and early treatment a lifestyle for Kenyan women,” Benda says.
“Cancer has grown from a health challenge into a serious social-economic problem for Kenyan families that often results in poverty due to meeting the costs of treatment procedures that include chemotherapy and radiation,” she says.
She is a firm believer in screening, which she says opens the door for early detection and treatment of cervical cancer, saving women and their families the steep costs of treatment at an advanced stage of the disease.
Benda and her group also negotiate with health facilities whenever cases of cervical cancer are discovered during their regular screening camps, to enable the women to receive affordable treatment.
The non-governmental organisation has been carrying out sensitisation campaigns and medical camps throughout the country to teach women about the need to get screened for cervical cancer.
She was inspired to start the organisation after her sister was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Their goal was to get one million women screened for cervical cancer, and to create awareness about the disease so that women could go for screening themselves.
More than 10,000 women have been screened at their medical camps.