, NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 19 – Cancer, it seems, is no respecter of persons. It has become the third leading cause of death in Kenya and even the Medical Services Minister Anyang’ Nyong’o is not immune to it, having battled prostate cancer.
“(When) you eat food that is fatty, high in carbohydrates; you are setting yourself up as a candidate for cancer,” he says.
His wife hadn’t been within earshot but she now places a plate piled high with fruit before him.
“The biggest challenge is that I cannot contain my patient. He’s busy… he’s a workaholic so controlling what he eats, when he eats, the rest he should get, his exercise programme, that’s my biggest challenge.”
Now that she has him in her sights, I suppose, she takes full advantage of it.
Rally ace Ben Muchemi stands next to the minister, a spring roll in hand. Earlier it had been a cup of hot chocolate when he told me, “I throw up five to six times a day but it doesn’t stop me from eating.”
He had taken a lavender hued tablet; “this,” he said holding up the medication, “costs Sh14,000 in Kenya. In India it cost me Sh700.”
Muchemi was diagnosed with stomach cancer on February 26, 2008. He thought he’d beaten it, until a month ago, “My type of cancer is the kind that hides and goes somewhere else and (now) it’s starting to go to my liver.”
Behind us stands former Safaricom Chief Executive Officer Michael Joseph. He too had cancer of the colon. It’s a sort of coming-out ceremony for him; he’s never spoken publicly of his fight with cancer.
“I have not come out publicly to say that I had cancer. I’m a very private person so I really don’t want to talk about it too much.”
It is perhaps fitting that he chooses the Michael Joseph Centre to open up and the launch of introductory manuals to cancer for those diagnosed with it and caretakers by the Africa Cancer Foundation as the forum.
“I read up on Google when I was diagnosed with cancer about what they were going to do to me but I got so frightened that I decided not to read any more and just trust that at the end of the process I would survive,” he said.
The Africa Cancer Foundation, started by the Nyong’o’s after the Medical Services Minister made his fight with cancer public in 2011, was launching four manuals to help those fighting cancer. The manuals try to explain in the simplest terms possible what chemotherapy and radiotherapy mean and the dietary habits one should adopt when fighting the disease.
Muchemi and Joseph not only share a history of cancer; Muchemi is a Safaricom dealer. The first he says.
“I started selling mobile phone handsets in 1992. One would go for about Sh1.2 million, a SIM card cost close to Sh400,000, a battery Sh100,000, an antennae Sh75,000 and we even had anti-radiation vests that would retail for Sh25,000. That wasn’t little money then. You also had to get the president’s approval.”
He is however better known today not for his entrepreneurial spirit but for his participation in motor sports.
“Michael told me ‘Ben you have to live through this thing, you have to look for something you’re passionate about,’ and that’s where motor sports came up. When I was in ICU I had these motor sport videos running in my ear although he told me it’s crazy,” Muchemi says of his first battle with cancer.
So passionate is he about the sport that even after receiving the news that his cancer was back, he still had to compete.
“I was told on Friday, Saturday we were in Eldoret racing. I later told my driver to take me to the airport and off I went to India to start my chemotherapy.”
Watching him move energetically up and down the room engaging animatedly in conversation it’s hard to believe he is undergoing chemotherapy.
“In the month since I restarted chemotherapy I’ve lost only a kilo. The first time they took out 80 percent of my stomach and I was using an artificial stomach. I went from 68 kilos to 35. I weighed as much as a chicken.”
The extreme measure of having most of his stomach removed had to be taken because his condition had been misdiagnosed as acid reflux for over four years.
“Last month I had some belching, I decided to go and see a doctor and they discovered my cancer has come back.”
Michael’s condition too, had been misdiagnosed for over a year.
“I didn’t get cancer (while) in Kenya. I had it for some time. I was misdiagnosed for one year. But nevertheless, I do see the prevalence of cancer in Kenya.”
Nyong’o too had lived with cancer for two years before he decided to get a second opinion, in the nick of time.
“Here I was, Minister for Medical Services, somebody who is pretty literate, who should have accessed the Internet, and yet for a long time I completely depended on the doctors. I would go to them, they would tell me things I do not check.”
“I was very lucky I caught my cancer in time when it was at a primary level. In fact, when I went to upstate New York for examination, the doctor looked at my PSA [Prostate Specific Antigen] levels and told me I was sitting between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
“Let’s take the clock back to July 2010,” Dorothy Nyong’o says, “We were in Malaysia for our daughter’s graduation and I had left my husband here. He joined me a few days later. When he came, he told me that he had done a biopsy and the results would be coming out in a few days.”
“After the graduation he travelled back to Nairobi and a few days later he sent me a text that I’ll remember to this day. It was very brief, it read, ‘the results are back, some malignant cells have been found, I’m already on treatment.'”
“And you know my husband, he was in the middle of it all so we put cancer on the back burner and he went all out for the ‘Yes’ campaign and the launch of the new constitution. That was in August.”
“By the time he was beginning his radiotherapy treatment in January of 2011, we knew he was not supposed to just lie in bed and commiserate and we used to take long walks every day.”
“Some people have been asking me why my hair didn’t fall off,” Anyang Nyong’o explains, “Your hair doesn’t fall off because unlike chemotherapy it’s non-invasive.”
The side-effects of the treatment were however not the worst part for him, “the most difficult part of it and I find this extremely painful, is when people comment in the newspapers, you went to California for treatment. What about us?”
“Look, I wish we could all go but surely, did you want me to die?”
Nyong’o is now taking the offensive. He’s on hormone therapy which he’ll complete in February 2013.
“What hormone therapy does for a man is to reduce your testosterone level because testosterone is food for prostate cancer cells so that any cancer cell that is still lingering about is starved to death. So I hope any cell that is still lingering about is starved to death.”
The most daunting part of Michael’s battle with cancer was the removal of the cancerous cells.
“I remember the doctor saying that when they’d operate on me they’d be able to see right through me and that was particularly frightening for me to think about and unlike Ben I stayed a very short time in the hospital mainly because there was no Formula One on the TV and I’m a great Formula One fan. But I left with all my bottles hanging from me. And went to the opera as well and that was quite something.”
Cancer currently causes more deaths than Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV and AIDS combined, the Africa Cancer Foundation website reads. Over 70 percent of cancer related deaths occur in developing countries, most of which are in Africa it goes on to say.
Michael is of the opinion that cancer and pollution are directly co-related.
“You go out on that road and you’ll see trucks, cars emitting huge amounts of lead poisoning into the air. The food that we eat is contaminated with insecticides. It’s all around us.”
“I agree,” Nyong’o says, “Exhaust fumes are the first source of cancerous materials in the air. We have not done enough.”
“When I lived in Mexico in 1981, 1982, and 1983, when you went down town you could wipe soot off your face. What Mexico did is implement legislation that you cannot import or produce any vehicle that is going to produce exhaust fumes.”
Nyong’o however warns that hospitals could in fact pose the greatest cancer threat.
“We are our own enemies by burning biomedical waste in hospitals where people are going to receive treatment, we are actually creating disease.”
“The fumes from biomedical waste are a thousand times more dangerous than industrial waste and we are working with a Belgian company to get rid of biomedical waste without burning or burying it in the ground.”
Until we attain the perhaps unassailable heights of a pollution-free environment, a good offense is our best defence Muchemi says, “Michael told me everybody has cancer cells and until you know what caused it you’ve got to always go and get checked.”