While her agemates were out celebrating completion of college, Lucky Ndanu was facing what she terms as the worst battle of her life.
Ms Ndanu was just 22 when she noticed a lump in her right breast. She sought medical attention from a nearby clinic but the doctor said that the small swelling was a common feature of physical development in young women and that there was nothing to worry about.
That was in November 2007. Soon Ms Ndanu noticed that the lump had become more aggressive and opted to go for a mammogram.
“When the results came out I decided to go to Mater Hospital because I felt that I needed an expert opinion on the issue. They put be through a breast clinic for two months which included getting a biopsy of the lump,” Ms Ndanu said.
When she went to pick her results from the hospital, her doctor informed her that she could not do so unless she was accompanied by an adult person. Her family did not reside in Nairobi, but as luck would have it Ms Ndanu’s mother was in the city and agreed to accompany her to the hospital.
“The way I reacted to news that I had breast cancer was very different from my mother who broke down. I was at the time unable to express myself and I just smiled. I guess the fact that I was the only girl in the family hit my mother hard,” she recalled.
Chemotherapy, mastectomy radiation and hormonal therapy were among the treatments that the doctor said she had to embark on immediately. But Ms Ndanu felt that she needed time to digest the news and come to terms with the diagnosis. However, she went for counselling soon after and later embarked on treatment.
“There were times when I felt that I should not go through the treatment, that it was not worth it. At other times I felt like I should be treated in order to save my life, it took me from February to May 2008 to finally make up my mind,” she said.
The first stage of her treatment process was a mastectomy. “It was my worst experience, admitting that I had cancer was difficult. I eventually lost my right breast to the disease,” Ms Ndanu said.
Feel like a real woman
After treatment, it took Ms Ndanu about four months to recover at the family home in Machakos before she decided to go back to Nairobi and continue with her job hunt. The support group she joined helped her get a breast prosthesis which ‘‘made me feel like a real woman’’.
She landed a job at the Kenya Pharmaceutical Association in December 2008.
‘‘One of my bosses was a supporter of the breast cancer group I attended and knew about my status so I did not have any difficulty within the work environment. I stayed there for two years,” she said.
Ms Ndanu later moved to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics where she worked under contract, after which she moved to the Mlolongo weighbridge for a short period.
Even though the Diploma in Statistics graduate is currently out of work, she said that she still markets her competency to potential employers.
“My self-esteem is very high, I look for jobs like any other person. I do not use my cancer experience to seek favours, it has made me stronger and I don’t feel like it is something that anybody should pity me about,” she said.
Accept your situation
Ms Ndanu found out that she was pregnant last year. She chose to focus on a new chapter in her life rather than be obsessed with not getting a job — that of becoming a mother.
After treatment, Ms Ndanu had doubts about becoming pregnant due to the hormonal therapy which she had been put on. As the May delivery date grew closer, some of her friends and family members expressed fear over whether she would be able to breast-feed her baby.
“Most of my friends did not imagine that I could exclusively breast-feed my child, one of them even introduced me to a nutritionist just in case I needed supplements to breast milk,” she said.
Her baby girl, Abriana, was all smiles throughout the interview, seeking to suckle her mother like any normal healthy baby. At five months she weighed 7.3 kilogrammes and her mother was overjoyed.
“One of my fears after being diagnosed with breast cancer was whether I would be able to date someone or get a baby, but here I am very happy and content to have Abriana,” she said.
Her advice to young women who find themselves in a similar predicament is to accept their situation.
“Healing starts with yourself. Take it positively, accept your situation and everybody around you will learn to accept it also,” she said. Mr Philip Odiyo, a psycho-oncologist at the Faraja Cancer Support Trust, echoed Ms Ndanu’s positive outlook.
“It is important for the healing process that those diagnosed with cancer should resume normalcy,” he said.
He advised breast cancer patients undergoing treatment to get back to work as soon as possible.
“Patients who keep away from social engagements during treatment are more likely to get depressed and worry about recurrence of cancer. Going back to work provides a good distraction and sets the stage for healing to begin,” he said.
Mr Odiyo said that every stage of treatment has a psychological component. For instance, when a person is diagnosed with cancer; fear of the disease, treatment cost and the reaction of family members occupy their minds even as they come to terms with the grim diagnosis.
“As much as having cancer is not synonymous with a death sentence, some patients still think of it with the same gravity and throughout the treatment they think of the risks associated with treatment,” he explained.
The psychologist who specialises in counselling of cancer patients said image and interpersonal relation issues take precedence among younger women, they also ponder over the possibility of bearing children.
After treatment many cancer patients are overwhelmed by lifestyle changes that they need to make, the process changes their perspective of life. There is a mental shift of what is really important to them.
“Research has shown that social activities help in the holistic healing process and cancer survivors need to engage in them fully as well as use their experience to make it a positive thing,” he said.