From despair to triumph: The story of a breast cancer survivor

Phillipa Kibugu was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 while living in the United States of America. This was four years after her sister died of the same disease at a tender age of 38.
Breast cancer survivor Phillipa Kibugu  during the Ulinzi walk for breast cancer awareness in Kigali.(Doreen Umutesi)
Breast cancer survivor Phillipa Kibugu during the Ulinzi walk for breast cancer awareness in Kigali.(Doreen Umutesi)

Phillipa Kibugu was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 while living in the United States of America. This was four years after her sister died of the same disease at a tender age of 38. 

“When my sister died, we didn’t know anything about breast cancer then. She was taken to England for treatment but on reaching there, the cancer had spread to the liver. Surgery was done but she died. I was the one taking care of her at the time. It was a trying time,” Kibugu sadly narrates.

Kibugu feels that her sister died because she was not knowledgeable about the disease and it was detected in the late stages.

Kibugu is the Director of Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa Inc (BCIEA), an initiative that was behind the Ulinzi breast cancer walk held last weekend. Dressed in a pink camouflage during the walk, Kibugu calls herself a soldier of breast cancer awareness. Pink is the theme colour for breast cancer awareness.

Following her sister’s death, Kibugu says she started learning about breast cancer. “I wanted to know about the disease to be prepared. I was in the US at the time and breast cancer awareness was massive.”

But in 1994 after identifying that she was at a risk, doctors started taking care of her and closely monitored her. Indeed she started taking annual mammography early at the age of 30 since her sister had died of the disease.

“In January 1994, I started feeling sharp pain. I went to the doctor and he said everything was okay. I went back and insisted, he carried out various tests but everything was negative. It was when he did a biopsy that the cancer was detected. It was in its early stages. I was given an option of a single mastectomy. But I opted for a mastectomy for both breasts. I did so for my family. I didn’t want to take any chances,” Kibugu recalls.

Kibugu had to undergo chemotherapy which is the most trying time for most cancer patients given the side effects related to the procedure such as fatigue, loss of appetite and hair, mood swings, nausea and so much more.

“I had nine rounds of chemotherapy. It was the most trying time of my life. My hair started falling off. But I kept a positive spirit. I learnt one thing that time; you can’t hide a disease from your family and friends because it affects them too. So they need to know and support you in any way they can,” Kibugu emotionally explains.

Kibugu adresses people after the walk.(Doreen Umutesi)

She adds: “I remember I had nice hair, but when it began falling off, I asked my 10-year-old daughter to give me a haircut. She asked me if I was sure and I gave her a go ahead. From that day on, she felt she was part of my treatment. Her support made me push through the treatment as well as everyone in my family. Healing starts with the patient being able to ask for help from those around him or her.”

When she recovered, she got involved in many breast cancer awareness programmes in America and gave her testimony to patients who had come to America for cancer treatment. She attributes her healing to being knowledgeable about the disease and having a supporting medical team, family, friends and church.

On return to Rwanda in 2007, she realised that Rwandan women needed to be empowered with knowledge and everything else needed to take charge of their health.

“When I survived, I asked myself, did my sister die because she didn’t know about breast cancer? I felt she represented many women who were not informed about the disease. I returned to Rwanda to use my experience to educate women and create awareness about breast cancer. On reaching here I met with 27 women whose breasts had been surgically removed so I founded Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa Inc (BCIEA),” says Kibugu.

Even though she had a team of seven doctors taking care of her, she was involved in making different decisions about her treatment.

“Every woman deserves the kind of treatment I had when I was dealing with breast cancer. I’m praying and hoping Rwandan women get access to treatment. Fortunately I was a full time teacher in the US with excellent insurance policy that my treatment didn’t drain me a lot,” Kibugu says.

Currently, the initiative has had direct contact with over 7,000 Rwandan women who are empowered through awareness, education and early detection workshops to utilise lessons learned and evidence –based approaches to generate awareness about breast cancer in communities.


“I always teach the women to take charge of their lives through living a heathy life. The initiative is aimed at promoting ‘early detection is the best protection’ which is our mission. But we also ensure that no one should face breast cancer fearfully, helplessly and alone,” Kibugu says.

She also says that she is happy that there are now many oncologists in the country.

“As the government sets up the facilities for breast cancer, I believe that the women need to have the knowledge about the disease. Knowledge is power. If you know your enemy, it’s easy to fight him,” Kibugu advises.

She adds: “My dream is to turn all the breast cancer diagnosis into survival stories like mine and this can be done through early detection and treatment. My wish is too see the cure of cancer in my lifetime.”

According to Anne Rugege, Kibugu’s long time friend, she was present during the first auction and fundraising that set up Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa while they were still living in the US.

“Philippa is a spiritual person that even when she was going through treatment of breast cancer, she was hopeful. Although it was just four years after she lost her sister to the disease, she remained positive that she was going to recover. Luckily the breast cancer support groups in the US were really helpful and so was the community,” Rugege says.

Rugege and Kibugu first crossed paths while at Gayaza High School in Uganda and they have been friends ever since.

“It’s her passion to help and support as well as share information, something I think she gets from being a teacher by profession. That inspired her to start the initiative. She had friends in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda who would call her in the US and tell her about their experience and this led her into creating awareness about the disease,” says Rugege.



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