NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 2 – This is the story of Florence Kivuva … not the whole story but a significant part of it, spanning about three years. Florence fought cancer and she won. But every day she looks at her scars, they remind her that she had life-changing encounter with what has been described as ‘the worst scourge of civilized mankind’.
In the year 2015, Florence was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I felt the lump myself and realised something was wrong; I had previously been going for the Well Woman Clinic so I called the hospital to book an appointment for a check up. The doctor who examined me was even more concerned when I told her I had chest pain.”
Florence says this was the beginning of a rigorous and financially draining month of diagnosis. Within the first week the doctor needed her to get an ultrasound and a biopsy. “When she told me I had Stage II Breast Cancer, I was emotionally numb, but she suggested I join a support group.” It was more out of curiosity rather than necessity that Florence went to Faraja Cancer Support but she is very glad that she made that decision at the very beginning because they have walked with her to this day.
“Be in tune with your body, never ignore the small tell-tale signs … get checked regularly!” This is the message that Florence preaches whenever she has the opportunity. ” Actually, it was the chest pain that made me realise the lump. I wasn’t self-examining like one should – every month after your menses.”
In retrospect, Florence remembers that six years earlier some fatty tissue had been seen in her breast after a mammogram. She was told to go back for observation after 6 months but ‘life happened’ and everything was hunky-dory. In June 2015, her hand was uncomfortable and numb for about two weeks. “But I ignored it and didn’t go to see a doctor, thinking I must have knocked myself somewhere, I was also a bit feverish but actually my body was telling me – you have an illness …” she mused.
After the diagnosis, Florence was told that she needed to have surgery to remove the lump in her breast within one month. The gravity of the matter now hit home; the looming financial burden was daunting. “I went to my pension scheme and they were able to give me the funds in three weeks as I underwent other tests. Nairobi Hospital had just began doing the tumor marker tests; previously the samples had to be taken to South Africa.
Florence says the initial diagnosis for cancer in Kenya needs to be made more affordable for the public. “I only had Sh40,000 in my account!” she told me. “My daughters had to chip in to ensure I got the required tests otherwise I wouldn’t have been diagnosed in good time. People get late diagnosis because they don’t have enough money.”
Pretty much in the same way that one remembers a significant occasion in one’s life, the 18th December 2015 will forever remain etched in Florence’s mind; it was the day she went under the knife. It was a radical mastectomy – which involved removal of the affected breast, underlying tissue, chest muscles and lymph nodes. The down-side of the lymph node removal is that it has affected the functioning of her hand and she suffers from Lymph-edema. This means that she requires regular lymphatic drainage which as a member of Faraja Cancer Support she gets for free.
“When I came out of theatre after four hours, I felt surprisingly well … I was in pain before I went into surgery, the breast had enlarged, and it was quite painful,” explained Florence.
Three weeks after her surgery, Florence began her chemotherapy which really took a toll on her. ” I went for eight chemo sessions, every three weeks. Immediately after the chemo, I used to be completely down, I couldn’t do anything for myself; luckily, my daughter never left my side,” recalled Florence.
The chemotherapy lasted six months and it was followed by radiation. Florence say her treatment took about 10 months sapping her energy and draining her savings. “During my treatment, I coped by sleeping … took time off and did absolutely nothing because even reading a newspaper gave me fatigue, I could not even listen to music.”
Florence loves reading, she had just finished the coursework for her master’s when the cancer diagnosis rudely interrupted her life. The fact the she could not read even a newspaper was very devastating. “Once I accepted that I was in this condition, I was able to relax and focus on the treatment … so for me it was treatment, resting and eating, I just concentrated on getting better,” she said.
There is still a lot of stigma surrounding cancer says Florence. “Even your relatives, when they come visiting they do not understand your struggle, for them cancer is like a death sentence, so you cannot share with them freely. But at Faraja I was able to get the support I needed.”
“For anybody has been diagnosed with cancer don’t suffer alone … there are many organisations that offer assistance, you just have to be resourceful; get as much information as you can to identify the right fit for diagnosis, treatment and support,” she advised.
Three years down the line, Florence is a cancer campaigner for prevention through a healthy lifestyle and early diagnosis. It has taken time for her to go back to work and the things that she enjoys but two weeks ago, she had a meeting with her supervisor who suggested that she writes her thesis on Gender and Cancer which she hopes to embark on soon.