I am seated on a chair with a hole burnt through it- a testament that university regulations against cooking in the halls of residence have been watered down to a myth. The minute hand on the wall is seconds away from home. It’s sniffing the number twelve almost the same way you would do to your girlfriend’s neck when she is just from the shower, secreting an inviting blend of shower gel, Cocoa Butter and Rasasi perfume. The midget hour hand is dazed on number four- its eyes transfixed on the damn thing like a pervert on a short skirt. The January evening sun behind me is lethargically crawling to to its bed, its yellow sparkle bleaches the room.
I am waiting for a girl, and as the rules of engagement dictate, I am a tad early. Anxiety has taken a toll on me- like a teenager getting high (or laid) for the first time. We met online, and this is supposed to be our first meeting. Meeting, not a date. There is a difference you know. I am about to be schooled on what Form Three Biology syllabus thought our minds were too fickle to understand. And ladies and gentlemen, so are you.
Enter Angela. That is not her real name. She prefers to remain anonymous. But her real name is royalty. The kind of name that does not make excuses. She is fairly tall, on heels. A turquoise dress covers her up decently, only showing flesh on places Jesus would approve. And I nod in agreement, because contrary to popular opinion among our chic-folk in campus, I think if God intended any part of your body to be flaunted, He would have put it on top of your head. She looks around for me and I wave to beckon her to the seat around me. She elbows her way past the parents chilling for their 5 o’clock classes to the corner that I had reserved just for the pair of us; perhaps constantly wondering all the way whether this is really worth it.
Attention students. Class is now in session.
“Question One, what is the leading killer disease in Kenya today?”
Cherie raises her hand immediately. “Oooh Oooh Oooh! Teacher! Teacher!”
“Malaria!” she screams matter of factly.
“Oh yeah, and that would make Jomo Kenyatta the current president, right? Anyone else?”
Another hand shoots up. “Teacher! Teacher!”
“That is a virus sweetie, not a disease. But I assume you meant AIDS, right?”
“Well you are wrong either way. Anybody else?”
Ignorant blighted silent stares. Omuga looks like he is itching with an answer.
“Omuga, do you want to say something?”
Meekly squeezes an answer from his cheeks.
“That’s absolutely right!” The whole class bursts into thunderous applauds. Cherie and Waruguru do not clap.
Cancer is the leading killer disease in Kenya today, more than HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria combined. About 80, 000 cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, and about 50 Kenyans die daily from cancer. If you bother to read the papers, or watch news past the first twenty minutes of political melodrama, then you would know. Today I am meeting a girl who is to turn twenty come Feb 15. She is a first year law student; a graduate of Moi Girls Eldoret with over eighty points. She is a second last born from Homabay County- and a cancer patient as well. Her name (for the sake of this post) is Angela.
She sits down across me.
“What can I get you? Coffee? Coke, perhaps?” I ask
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Trust me; it is their food that smells of smoke. The Coke is good though.”
“I am on a strict diet.”
Damn it Goon! What the hell were you thinking offering a cancer patient Coke? Really? You couldn’t even think of Afia or Fanta? Tsk!
Such are the simple joys of life that Angie here has been denied. She has been bound by the shackles of strict diet. She is no longer free to eat or drink whatever she wants from the menu. And she is here to tell me all about it, so that I can tell you. So listen closely, I will be clear.
What is the first thing that comes to a girl’s mind when she misses her menses for three months, and constant vomiting? Anyone class?
Waruguru and Cherie shout in unison, “PREGNANT!”
That’s right ladies, but then it could also imply that you are on stage two of breast cancer, and if you want to live, then you will require four rounds of radiotherapy. That is what Angie was told on August 6th 2011 when she went to Aga Khan Hospital. Kisumu of course- the one in Nairobi is more of a University. She was lucky to have survived breast cancer. My Aunt Anastasia was not as lucky.
A whole year passed by gracefully. Up until July 2012, she was all good. Until her hormones started acting up again. Her menses would go away for months and when they finally showed up, they would run for a fortnight. Ladies, you all know how bleeding for three days with cramps that make you feel like you ate nails for breakfast feels like. Now multiply that by five.
Yes, Cherie. You may use your calculator.
She was told to use contraceptives- Femiplan. A lump then developed just below her navel. It lasted three days, and then disappeared. Then in came the bloating, constipation, frequent visits to the loo, and then finally a bulging belly. This warranted a visit to Russia.
Russia is a hospital in Kisumu. Remember when Mzee Kenyatta went to Kisumu and was pelted with a rotten egg? Well, he had gone to officiate the official opening of that hospital. If you read Coming to Birth, that is also the time when Paulina’s son, Okeyo, was shot down when Kenyatta’s men opened fire against protesting locals. The locals there named it Russia because it was built by a Russian contractor. However, its original name was New Nyanza General Hospital; until sometime last year when it was rebranded to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Referral Hospital. I still don’t know why they changed the name, but I bet it’s because after four decades, it had ceased to be new.
At Russia, Angie was told that her hormones were at it again. Doctor prescribed another dose of Femiplan. So while the rest of you use these pills to suppress life, she was using it to see through another Christmas.
August 30th 2012, she went back to Aga Khan where she had been treated of Breast Cancer the previous year. Diagnosis later indicated that she was suffering from ovarian cyst, originating from her right ovary. The only cure was to unburden her of one of her ovaries. They took the left one.
Cherie shoots up. “Teacher, why did they remove the left one when it is the right one that had issues?”
“I don’t know. They never said why. Angie too doesn’t know why.”
“Me thinks those people at Aga Khan are quacks.”
“Me thinks that we should keep our day jobs kiddo.”
Angie reported to law school in September 2012. But she did not leave behind the anguish of vomiting, exhaustion and swelling feet. Still, these things wouldn’t go away. The reasons why they wouldn’t let her be were nebulous. As unclear as to how Sonko ended up in Parliament in the first place. Apparently, giving up one of her ovaries was not enough payment.
She sought medical attention in the school dispensary. A faux pas if you ask me. In this school, it does not matter what you may go there to report- be it food poisoning, typhoid or hernia. The prescription is always standard- a huge dose of Panadol. The big white devils that scratch their way down your throat. Of course that didn’t work. So she was referred to the clinic at Main Campus. These symptoms mocked the minds of the doctors there too. But that was expected. They told her to go to Kenyatta National Hospital.
It was on 3rd October 2012 when she showed up on the Oncology Wing of KNH. The man she was looking for was Dr. Anselmy Opiyo; this is a special man, a rare kind of a man. There are very few men like him in this country. Throughout the vastness of our boundaries, there are only 20 oncologists, and out of these, a meager four of them are professionals. The other 16 are merely camp followers. Dr. Anselmy is one of the four.
Angie had to stay in line for hours just to see Dr. Anselmy. Meanwhile, a CT scan and ultra sound was performed on her. She says pregnancy tests are a standard procedure in this wing.
“I knew it. I knew she was pregnant!”
“No Waruguru. She wasn’t”
“The hell you say!”
Results showed that she had abnormal cell activity in her lower abdomen. That is to say, she had a colony of tumors multiplying in her lymphoid. Ovarian cancer, stage 3B. Mind you, there are only four stages in a cancer cycle. And stage three has 3A, 3B and 3C.
The prognosis by Dr. Anselmy was that the people at Aga Khan had not noticed that the fluid around her cyst had been cancerous. Please remain seated, Cherie. You were right. They were quacks. Angie had to bear the harrowing experience of being told that since she was on remission from Breast Cancer, her hormonal system had been pretty messed up to say the least. She needed immediate chemotherapy followed by surgery. That would give her like three more years. Otherwise, she wouldn’t live to see the fourth president of Kenya.
Characteristically, one is put on a queue, because chemotherapy equipment and personnel are limited in Kenya. The queue is as long as three months. Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital alone offers chemotherapy to 400 patients monthly. Angie didn’t have three months. Dr. Aneslmy had to push her name forward.
After the first session of chemo, she had to undergo a surgery process known as debulking.
“What is debulking?” Omuga asks.
This is where the internal organs of the patient that is worst hit by the tumor are removed to reduce the spread. In her case (ovarian cancer) she had to lose a part of her colon, uterus, fallopian tube and the remaining ovary she had left. Essentially, she had to lose her entire reproductive system- her entire womanhood.
After this, the only other fear that she had was to one day wake up and find her pillow covered with hair. She knew that day would come, and there was no need of fighting fate. So on the 21st November 2012, she took to the scissors. Since then she has been walking with shaven hair. Darling (the hair manufacturing company) donates wigs and weaves to cancer patients. But she humbly declined.
“This thing has taken so much away from me; but I will not let it take away my self-esteem and confidence,” She told me with tears balancing in her eyes. “Oh yeah, plus I don’t want to be part of horse killing for the sake of plastic perfection.”
“So what do you tell people when they ask why you keep short hair?” I asked
“I tell them that I am redefining my sense of style.” She says proudly with a smile.
I can only imagine what a chemo session for ovarian cancer is like. It runs for five to six hours as they use a tube to intravenously insert drugs into what remains of your reproductive system. Those drugs (Taxol and another platinum based one) are the bitch. They will put you through 12 hours of nonstop toilet visits to puke. The agony of the entire process can only be ignored by trying to find solutions to relativity. She comes out of that room like a miner lifted out of a collapsed building; exhausted, blackened, oxygen-starved, but alive, thrillingly amazingly alive. My grandma, a once upon a time throat cancer patient, could not bear the pain after the second session. She declined to go back. The disease took her throat away and she couldn’t pass anything down. Not even saliva. She basically starved to death.
Here are some interesting facts. 80% of those diagnosed with cancer in low income countries will die of cancer compared to 30% on High Income Countries. Angie’s family coughed out 2.6m to treat her initial Breast Cancer. One chemo session goes for 90k, and a drug costs between 7 grand and 63 grand. Anyang’ Nyong’o may have been able to go to the states for his treatment, and Rose Nasimiyu got donations from the world over. But Angie has not been accorded those kinds of privileges or courtesies. Her brother paid for the first and second chemo sessions and had to borrow money from a friend to pay for the third. Never mind that she has to go for one session every three weeks without fail! However, after the third session, and with three more to go, her brother was too broke to afford another 90 grand.
It was in the middle of all this that the most unbelievable thing happened. Everything went wrong! Angie was wandering around, downtrodden, without a single hope in the world. Let me tell you, one can do a lot of soul searching at a time like that. And it was then that she leant about the Faraja Cancer Support Trust organized an event for people living with cancer, and those affected by it. The event was dubbed There is Life after Cancer. Angie attended. Here she met a lady who had lost her mother and husband to Breast and colon cancer respectively.
Angie’s story touched her, and she (a complete stranger) agreed to pay for the remaining sessions.
As I write this, Angie has gone for four chemo sessions. She has two more to go. She was to attend her fourth one on 17th Jan but she had a CAT on that day, and since she isn’t going to let cancer dictate her life, she went on the following day instead. She blogs about her life with cancer, but she wouldn’t let me give you the link. It’s that anonymity thing again. She has long since lost faith in God. Having a Dr. Anselmy telling you that you have less than a year to be done with your bucket list has a way of making you question the existence of a fair and loving God.
Angie remembers who she was during the years leading up to her first encounter with cancer- invulnerable, tough and fearless. But now she has been chafed by the chains of a disease that is determined to turn her into a piece of worthless life. She is one of 80,000 people who are diagnosed with cancer annually. She has been through two types of cancer, had her entire female reproductive system removed, undergone four radiotherapy sessions and four chemo sessions. She knows how it feels like shit to vomit daily and count down days to your inevitable end that is coming sooner than it should have. But she has also known what it is to have a roommate like hers, a brother like hers and a stranger who gives a damn about her. These are the people in her life who have rekindled the dying embers of her hopes that all is not lost- that the world is not such a treacherous place after all. She has been a cancer survivor for a year; and just as life was just beginning to be impossibly wonderful, she became a cancer patient for the rest of her life. She is single because she would not bear putting another person through this kind of emotional torment.
And this is what she has to tell this class…
“That thing about cancer being a lifestyle disease is hogwash. I am a testament. Life is short, and you will not realize just how short it is until you have been literally given a death sentence. And you do not have to wait till October for you to wear pink ribbons. Because cancer is an everyday thing. ”
The bell rings for lunch.