Breast cancer

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 6,799 Kenyan women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year.

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Surviving and thriving after breast cancer treatment

We are all very different, but when it comes to breast cancer, rich or poor, the loss of a breast becomes an equaliser.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 6,799 Kenyan women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. It is the most common cancer among women, but also one of the most treatable.

Over the years, access to treatment and awareness have increased the number of survivors.

SatMag spoke to women and doctors about life after a breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy – the surgical removal of a diseased breast – radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Just as women come in all shapes and sizes, so too do their experiences of breast cancer – from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. Some face breast cancer in the prime of their youth, others in their sunset years.

Yet there is an invisible thread that binds them together—the breast as a cornerstone of female identity. The loss of one or both breasts can significantly affect a woman's quality of life.

For women diagnosed with breast cancer, the breasts become the key battleground in the fight for survival, and some are faced with the daunting choice of preserving their lives at the expense of their appearance.

But behind this critical choice lies an experience that unravels the intricate layers of a woman's identity, her sense of self-worth and her perception of beauty. These are stories of breast cancer survivors who know the true meaning of loss, transformation and resilience.

Lilian Muthoni

Lilian Muthoni during an interview on October 3, 2023.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

Lilian Muthoni, 31

The year 2019 was going well. I was living a healthy life, running my kiosk.

But in November, my life took an unexpected turn. It all started with a pain, not in my chest, but in my right hand. The pain was particularly pronounced in my shoulder, especially when I lifted heavy objects. My customers told me it must be a strain on the shoulder muscles, perhaps caused by cutting a lot of vegetables. So I bought some antibiotics from a chemist, took them, and hoped the pain would go away.

But the discomfort moved under my breast. Apart from the mild pain, I couldn't feel or see any changes in my breasts, such as the lumps associated with cancer. I made countless visits to a nearby chemist. The pharmacist kept selling me different drugs, but the pain persisted. I was desperate for relief.

One day I mustered the courage to go to hospital. They started by running the normal tests and found out that I was three months pregnant. The doctors advised me to be admitted for further tests and observation.

After a week in the hospital, I was transferred to another hospital. This ward was full of expectant women.

The nurse asked me countless questions about my family and where I lived. I told them that I was a mother of three and that I was carrying my fourth child.

One day the nurses came in and gave me the news that shattered my world. They told me that I had breast cancer. Questions flooded my mind and I cried bitterly, asking why this had happened to me. I was young and expecting a baby. I had already lost two aunts to breast cancer. I wondered if I would live long enough to see my children grow up.

I was told that the cancer was at an advanced stage (Stage 3) and that I needed to start treatment immediately. I was also told that they could not do a breast MRI because I was pregnant. Some suggested that I should I terminate the pregnancy, but I refused. I was determined to carry my baby to term, even if it meant enduring the pain radiating down my shoulder.

I was kept in the hospital for four months, not for cancer treatment but to monitor my progress.

I gave birth at seven months. My baby became a beacon of hope during this trying period. I would talk to the disease, loudly commanding it to leave my body.

After the baby, I was required to start the cancer treatment. It was about a year since I felt pain in my shoulder.

In 2020 the tests were repeated and they showed the cancer had spread. There was no way the doctors could save my breast. I was booked for a mastectomy (a surgery performed to remove a breast).

When I was told about the total removal of the breast, I wondered if my husband would still love me. Would he stay by my side?

But I consoled myself with the thought that losing the breast would ease the pain that had persisted for years.

After the surgery, I looked at myself in the mirror but I felt as if there were two versions of me staring back. It was uncomfortable showing my bare chest. I remember my husband pleading to see the scar. I refused to show him for days, despite his assurances that he still loved me and would stay with me regardless of the changes to my body.

One day I was brave enough to show him the scar. He reassured me that having one breast should not make me feel less of a woman. Now I don't feel the need to wear anything to cover my breasts at home. However, to avoid stares outside our home, I started wearing folded up clothes. Thankfully, I later got a silicone breast prosthesis. I don't like wearing it all the time, but I am worried about the stares.

Although I have not returned to my kiosk because I still suffer from pain and fatigue, this journey has changed my perspective on life, myself and the people I love. I now dedicate my life to urging others to seek medical help early, to face their battles head-on, and to cherish the love and support of those closest to them. I may have lost a part of myself, but I've gained a new determination to cherish every moment of this beautiful life.

Agnes Wambui.

Agnes Wambui during the interview at her home in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Bella Osako | Nation Media Group

Agnes Wambui, 64

When you are told you have cancer, you seek information, some of it unscientific and dangerous, some of it life-saving.

From herbs, diets and supplements to alternative cancer clinics, I certainly did not go looking for them, but I was given endless advice. But the one I regret following was the purchase of a Sh40,000 electric belt, which I was told to strap to my breast to get rid of the lumps. I was desperate.

It was a quiet night in 2016 when I first found the lump on my left breast that I wanted the electric belt to 'burn'.

At the time, I had seen a lot of TV programmes where doctors demonstrated breast self-exams. So for the next few nights, I made it a ritual, albeit a daunting one, to examine my breasts. There were moments when I hesitated, afraid to face the possibility of feeling a lump. So when I did feel it, I went to the hospital. I was told not to worry as there was no pain. I went back and ignored the lump. After two years, the once small lump had turned into what felt like a stone in my breast and it had my nipple inwards. I had tests done, but they showed nothing to worry about.

Three years later, I insisted on having a mammogram (an X-ray of the breast) because I knew deep down that I had breast cancer. I still remember the doctor's blunt words when he gave me the diagnosis: "You have cancer and you know it's a deadly disease, right?"

I went through a whirlwind of emotions, but I knew I had to stay strong for my children. I continued with my daily routine of selling boiled maize as if everything was fine.

It wasn't until 2020 that I decided to seek advanced medical care.

Patient conned Sh40,000, in search of breast cancer treatment

As I did not have enough money, I asked friends and family for financial help.

One of them, however, suggested that I buy an electric belt that was supposed to cure cancer. The salesman assured me that many of his customers had been cured after using the belt. It was very heavy on my chest. And expensive. I took Shh40,000 from the Sh100,000 I had received from well-wishers and bought the belt.

For six months, I followed a daily ritual of plugging in the belt and wearing it around my chest for two hours. I did it every morning. It left me with burns on my right breast, but I needed a cure for the cancer that was now deep in my breast.

I was scared of losing my breast. I didn't want to think about how I would look or what people would say. But it turned out that losing my breast was the best treatment option. When I realised that the lumps were not going away, I started watching TV programmes featuring women who had had mastectomies to give me the strength and mental fortitude to go through with the treatment.

Since having my breast removed, my life has changed. I don't look or feel sick any more, but things haven't quite returned to normal. I still go to clinics and I still have an inflammation in my shoulder, which was caused by the radiotherapy.

I am also unable to return to my previous job, and certain household chores are now too strenuous. There is also the issue of clothing. Many clothes no longer fit my new body properly. I prefer to wear loose clothes at home, but when I step out I always wear a breast prosthesis.

The stigma surrounding breast cancer is a huge challenge for me and many others in my support group.

I urge all women to do regular self-examinations at home, and if they find anything alarming, to seek immediate medical attention and follow expert advice.

Grace Macharia

Grace Macharia, a breast cancer patient, pictured during an interview at her home in Nairobi on October 3, 2023.

Photo credit: Bella Osako | Nation Media Group

Grace Macharia, 76

By the time you reach 70, you think you have heard so much about cancer that it is not so shocking. But when it rears its ugly head, the shock is profound.

At the height of the pandemic, I noticed a small lump in my left breast. It felt hard, like a small stone. Based on other people's experiences and what I had heard from various experts on the radio, this was cause for alarm.

I told my children and we went to the hospital immediately. It was not a quick diagnosis, we moved from one hospital to another, underwent countless tests and saw numerous doctors. It took more than a year before I was finally diagnosed.

Although the words 'you have breast cancer' were delivered with the utmost kindness, the weight of the diagnosis still hung heavy. Given my age, I felt the diagnosis was a hasty death sentence. But my children encouraged me. They did their best and sacrificed a lot to make sure I got the best treatment.

Chemotherapy is not for the faint of heart. It was exhausting, but one conversation I remember having with my doctor was about having my breast removed. I asked, "Surely, at my age, how long will it take to heal?"

Fortunately, I did not have any major health problems after the mastectomy. I had a great experience with my doctor.

When the bandage was removed, I noticed that the flat side of the breast gave clothes a very poor fit and shape. I started to improvise the breast prosthesis that I wear when I go out. Many people still don't know that I lost a breast.

I don't think about it much, except when I am deciding what to wear. I have no pain and even manage to go to the shamba. I will be starting radiotherapy in a few weeks.