, NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 10 – When James Nyaga\’s son, Lee, was admitted to the Kenyatta National Hospital in 2007, he did not imagine that he was starring at a life threatening situation.
Nyaga stares into the empty space as he remembers his son\’s three-year battle with cancer.
"He was about two years and ten months at that time and his (condition) was very strange. He simply started wetting the bed again and we got a bit worried so we took him to the nearest clinic where he was treated for worms," Nyaga recalls.
However, even after the treatment, nothing changed. One day as Lee\’s mother was bathing him, she felt his stomach was abnormally firm.
They thought he had swallowed something prompting them to rush him to a private hospital. He was instead diagnosed with a tumour which doctors said was too big and it could not be removed surgically. He was therefore referred to the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) for chemotherapy. All this time, they were not aware that their son was suffering from cancer.
"He had 12 courses of chemotherapy after which he went for the second surgery where they removed some remnants. There were some pieces that had not been cleared by the chemotherapy and then he was given two extra doses of chemotherapy," he goes on to say.
Lee then underwent radiotherapy after which he was discharged.
For the next eight months, Lee was healthy. But this was short-lived. The tumour recurred in August 2009 and he was taken back to hospital where he was admitted for four months.
"He reacted to every drug he was given and this forced the doctors to stop giving him medication," his father says adding that this is the time it dawned on them that this were Lee\’s last moments.
"The doctors were very frank with us; they told us that there was nothing they could do and since the boy was very weak, we asked for permission to take him home towards the end of January last year."
He explains that Lee even went back to school although he was limping and the tumour had grown very big.
"He was in school until April when they closed and then on May 10, he passed away in the morning," Nyaga sadly recounts.
"Although we had been prepared for this and we even knew how long he had to live, it was very difficult for us especially when we had to discuss the loss with my wife," he says.
Nyaga however does not harbour any bitterness over the death of his son. He has instead chosen to use that suffering and loss as a lesson to take care of other cancer children.
He is now involved in an organisation known as Hope for Cancer Kids.
"I remember in 2007 December, the boy wanted to go home but he couldn\’t so he insisted on talking to his brother and told us not to visit him if we don\’t go with his brother," he remembers.
"We discussed that with the administrators and they allowed the brother to come," he adds.
He says the Kenyatta National Hospital now frequently organises an open day for cancer children to mingle with their siblings.
"The idea here is to de-stigmatise cancer and also to distract the children from the painful procedure," Nyaga says.
"For me if the boy (Lee) never insisted we would never have gotten that day."
Dr Fatma Abdalla, a Paediatric cancer specialist at KNH says some of the most common cancers in children include Burkitt lymphoma which usually presents with a swelling of the jaw especially the lower jaw and sometimes comes with abdominal swelling.
She says Leukaemia, which is a blood cancer and kidney cancer are the other common cancers they receive. Unfortunately, most of the children are brought to the hospital when the cancer is at the late stages.
"Some parents take up to three months to bring their children after they are referred here and mainly it is because some are from rural areas and lack the means of transport to come to Nairobi," she says.
Dr Abdalla advises parents to look out for these symptoms:
"If you notice a swelling that usually doesn\’t give pain, it is usually highly suggestive of cancer but many times parents attribute it to a fall," she warns adding that an abdominal swelling should also raise eyebrows.
"When parents are washing their children, they should feel the abdomen so that they can detect early if anything," she says.
"If you see that your child is in and out of hospital with tonsils or cough, you should be suspicious and request for a thorough examination," she concludes.
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