World Cancer Day is an international day marked on February 4 to raise awareness about cancer, its prevention, detection, and treatment.
It was founded by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) to support the goals of the World Cancer Declaration, written in 2008.
In this light, 43-year-old, Anne Kirungi, a cancer survivor, shares with Women Today her ordeal with the dreadful disease and the road to recovery.
A couple of years back, Kirungi was enjoying what she described as an accomplished life. Working as a manager in the private sector, a mother to an eight-year-old boy, and living a healthy lifestyle, eating healthy, exercising, and living positively, Kirungi was at the top of the game.
All this, however, suddenly changed two years ago, when she was diagnosed with stage 2 cervical cancer.
“I was so scared. But I had to come to terms with what was before me. I was young and had dependants I had to take care of. I thought of writing my will. My worry wasn’t death but the people that I take care of,” she says.
How it all began
It all began in June 2015, when Kirungi started experiencing stomach pain and severe cramps whenever she ate or started her monthly periods, something that was unusual.
“Initially I thought I had ulcers because I had different kinds of symptoms such as severe menstrual cramps, backache, headache and, I realised my body had completely changed and that is when I decided to see a different doctor. I was given different kinds of medications to ease the pain which didn’t work for me.”
Luckily for her, she met a gynaecologist/ obstetrician/oncologist who was yet to reveal the truth.
After examining her, the doctor told her, “I don’t like what I’m seeing. I suspect that you have cancer of the cervix.”
She didn’t believe him.
He assured her that further tests would reveal whether his suspicions were true or not and gave her medication to ease the pain.
After doing a biopsy and running other tests like chest x-rays, and colonoscopy that turned out negative, she was told to wait a month for the biopsy results.
“That month of patiently waiting turned out to be a very difficult period because I didn’t know what to expect. I began to look back at all the symptoms I had that year and I began praying and hoping that when the results came, they would contradict what the doctor told me,” she says.
The news of having carried the disease for quite a while would soon be the turning point in her life. She realised the need to fight for her life. She chose to fight with every ounce of energy in her to survive the disease.
“I knew what cancer meant before I even met the doctor. I was overwhelmed by the news because it is a scary thought; one moment you’re full of life and the next, you’re ebbing away. My mind however refused to accept it,” she says.
Kirungi’s family, support groups, employers and workmates pledged to stand with her and they played a key role in her battle.
With the help of her niece who was pursuing her Masters in medicine in Japan and her friends, they were able to mobilise support at the end of January last year, and she was able to travel to Bangalore, India for treatment.
She chose chemotherapy treatment to avoid the cancer from spreading to the whole body, after the alternative medicine to help ease the pain to control the tumour did not work out.
“Initially, I didn’t want to go for chemotherapy because I had researched about it and I was not comfortable with the effects of the medication. I had learnt that in many cases, it kills the patient even faster than the cancer itself. An American doctor friend, however, advised me to go for chemotherapy before I deteriorated to avoid the cancer from spreading throughout the whole body,” she says.
She became anaemic towards the end of that year with haemoglobin levels at 3.7 per cent and had to be given a blood transfusion before treatment in India. Within a week, she was able to do tests to confirm the size of the tumour and the staging that would determine the treatment plan. She was then able to choose the best hospital that had the best expertise.
On February 11, she began her first chemotherapy session. With all the fear of chemotherapy gone, she had three cycles up to April and had the radiotherapy in May, to shrink the tumour. Her good response to chemotherapy gave her hope.
She narrates that despite the excruciating pain; she was focused and was fortunate to have a lot of resources at her disposal. By searching on the internet she was able to find supplements to counter the effects of chemotherapy and fortify her immunity.
“That’s how I never lost too much hair and the effects were light. My nails and skin did not change drastically and they were able to go back to normal within a short period of time,” she says.
Being homesick, however, and having responded well to treatment, the doctors were finally able to give her the instructions on how the medication is administered and she was able to come back home in June.
“I was relieved to come back home as the weather here is far more favourable than India’s. I also had trouble adjusting to the food and because of the medication, my system could not put up with too much curry. I couldn’t wait to go back home,” she recalls.
In September, she went for a review and her oncologist could not recognise her due to her weight gain. She was given medication to cope with the side effects of the chemotherapy and radiation to help her hair, skin, and bones.
Kirungi explains that one of the coping mechanisms she used was staying positive. She did this by keeping the same busy routine and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. That is how she was able to respond positively to the treatment.
“Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had gone on a diet and cut out sugar, milk and had lost weight naturally. I was also exercising, something that helped me cope. I stopped consuming red meat after my diagnosis to avoid poisoning my body, and stuck to a healthy diet because I knew that with medication, the body cannot handle acidic and poisonous foods,” she says.
Despite the ordeal, Kirungi was able to win the battle against cancer, having gone for check-up twice since completing treatment. She was able to resume work where her employers were supportive and granted her ample time to rest.
Kirungi will soon be flying to India for the PET-Scan to, in her words, “put my mind at rest.”
The silver lining
Waking up every morning with a new level of pain was a journey Kirungi says was no walk in the park. But every day, she trusted that the next would bring something better. She kept her focus on the good moments and the daily hustles like communicating with her family back home because it was a fight she knew she had to win.
“When you go through adversity, it can either ruin you, or make you. I had no victim mentality because I knew that it was not yet my time and I had a purpose to live. I had gone through situations that had fortified me and so when this came, the storm did not drown me. I had to fight with every ounce of energy in my body,” she says.
She has since joined an advocacy group and dreams of working with other advocacy groups in setting up a resource centre to help cancer patients and survivors deal with the emotional and physical side effects of the disease.
“Some survivors may have effects and may not know how to respond, so we give assistance to them and help them cope with the side effects that are either long or short term. Fear, lack of information, and, lack of knowledge cause many people to lose hope. No matter where you are in life, there are situations that shake your foundation,” she says.
She is using her story to give hope to people and encourage young people as well as those living with HIV/AIDS that they can live a productive existence and achieve their life’s purpose.
Similar to this year’s World Cancer Day tagline We can. I can, Kirungi’s dream is to write a book about her ordeal, give hope to and inspire cancer patients and let them know that the battle can be won, and, contribute to raising awareness about cancer.