Beth Mugo

 Ms Beth Mugo (right), then the minister for Public Health,  makes public her cancer diagnosis during a press briefing while flanked by her physician Dr Robert Mathenge. 

| File | Nation Media Group

Beth Mugo: Cancer shock and the epic battle to save my life

Getting a second chance at anything is spirit-lifting. But getting a second chance at life is mind-boggling. It happened to me after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, got treated, and declared free of the disease. After my cancer experience, I felt obliged to not only thank God for my survival but to also go out of my way and give back to the society.

I had come from Brazil after leading the Kenyan delegation to a global Ministers of Health Conference. Travelling back was a long trip because one had to get a connecting flight in the US. I decided to rest before taking the next flight to Nairobi.

My in-tray at the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation was full. I wanted to be back home in time to attend Parliament to respond to a hot question, where members of Parliament from the Northern and Upper Eastern parts of the country had alleged that the government wanted to kill their children by distributing maize containing aflatoxin.

The question was tabled in Parliament a day after my arrival. I got to Parliament at 2pm to answer that question, which I considered too important and sensitive to leave to my assistant minister to tackle. It was not only a health issue, it was a national security concern.

At that time, Kenya was struggling with one of its fiercest droughts and all Arid and Semi-Arid Land (Asal) areas, including Eastern, Rift Valley, Nyanza, Central, Coast and North Eastern, required a government intervention by way of distributing relief food.

Kenya had imported maize from Mozambique and a chemical analysis of the stock by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and other health agencies found that its aflatoxin levels were dangerous for human consumption. The political class said all manner of things, including claims that some private sector interests were pushing the government to distribute the maize to the unsuspecting public.

I knew this was false and as the minister responsible for Public Health and Sanitation, I had to give the government’s position.

The atmosphere in Parliament was unpleasant. The MPs were angry but I steadied myself and answered the question satisfactorily despite the murmurs that followed my statement. Luckily, the Speaker, Kenneth Marende, halted the debate, saying, the minister had answered the question well.

That afternoon, I had a funny feeling in my body. I thought it was related to jet lag and fatigue. On my way home from Parliament, the discomfort intensified and I started vomiting, forcing my bodyguard, Mr David Njenga, and driver, Mr John Wamai to drive me to M.P. Shah Hospital.

I am glad they made the decision. At the hospital, tests were done and they asked if I had a personal doctor since I needed further examination.

Dr Robert Mathenge, my personal physician, was contacted and he asked that I be transferred to Nairobi Hospital to meet him there.  Before we left M.P. Shah Hospital, my bodyguard informed my husband and children of the situation.

At the Nairobi Hospital, tests revealed that some chemical was high in my blood, raising concern that it could lead to cardiac arrest. Apparently, one of the small blood veins had blocked but Dr Mathenge, a renowned cardiologist, infused humour in, comparing the blocked vein to a small road in the body but traffic was flowing.

Nevertheless, I was admitted. Then memories started flooding. In particular, I remembered Joab Omino, former Kisumu Town MP and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, sharing his story during a trip to attend an International Parliamentary Union (IPU) meeting in Jordan. During a stopover in Israel, Joab was not feeling well but he struggled to make a presentation at the IPU Conference.

Beth Mugo

Beth Mugo.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“MPs, we must at all times think about our health, not work. I relied more on over-the-counter medicine to treat discomforts in my body only to discover later that I had cancer," Omino had said. (Omino died in 2004)

Although initial tests had identified a blocked vein, further tests led to the discovery of a lump on my right breast. This was unreal, I could not believe it because a breast ultrasound I had done earlier had given me a clean bill of health. A few months earlier, in April, I did a mammogram but it missed the lump. And so, I was telling Dr Viri Talwar, the Chief Radiologist, “No, no, I did a mammogram and it was clear.”

He answered: “No, we will do an ultrasound just to confirm.” After the ultrasound, he said; “Minister, I think I found a lump. Don’t be alarmed, I am not saying it is cancer. It can be benign, but there is a lump that needs further examination. Where would you like to be treated if it’s found to be cancer?” I chose America.

This was because I have lived there and knew a reconstructive surgery doctor whose wife had cancer and was treated successfully. I also knew the USA had the right equipment.

At the time, I was chair of the Council of Health Ministers for the East, Central and Southern Africa Health Community (ECSA-HC).It is at the ECSA Conference of Health Ministers in Mombasa, a week after my diagnosis, where I was installed as chair. The conference ended on a Saturday evening and I left for Nairobi on Sunday while some delegates remained in Mombasa to holiday. I was exhausted both physically and mentally.

I booked a KLM flight and left for the US the following Monday with my husband and daughter, Murugi. We arrived at Amsterdam Airport at three or four in the afternoon and checked into a hotel for the night. On arrival at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, we found representatives of the Kenyan Mission in New York waiting for us. We were taken to Philadelphia, which was quite a journey. We checked into a hotel near the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and I could not sleep. I was anxious.

Next day, we went to hospital where the head of Medical Oncology clinic, Dr John Harrison Glick and Dr Linton Whittaker, an emeritus professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, received me. We were accorded high reception. The director of the hospital for international patients was also present.

All formalities were done and I was taken through the needle test and the specimen had to be cultured. A lady surgeon called Julia Tchou inserted the fine needle, which was not painful as I had anticipated. People should not fear. Julia is now the Director of Breast Surgery Research at the University.

I was really tense when the day of the results came. They said, "It is positive." I got confused and was overwhelmed with emotions when they said it was ‘triple negative’. I did not know what that meant. Apparently, ‘triple negative’ meant I would not be a candidate for therapy.

There was new treatment where patients are given a drug that dissolves cancer cells for a period of five years or more. However, they said my case needed surgery. I was shocked and troubled but they did offer me counselling.

My case was found to be Stage 1 and they gave me 95 to 97 per cent rate of success. This gave me hope. Thereafter, I was given the option to do part or full tissue removal. It may involve introducing a foreign body, which can be rejected or use fat whose acceptability rate is high. I chose the fat in the omentum.

I came back home for Christmas and to brief the President. I was given two weeks leave before they could do complete surgery and start treatment. In Nairobi, I went to State House to see and explain to President Mwai Kibaki what had happened, and to request for leave because the treatment procedure would take me at least six months.

Beth Mugo

Ms Beth Mugo is welcomed by family members at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on July 29, 2012, after arriving from the USA where she had gone for cancer treatment. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

This was routine because, earlier, when my Cabinet colleague Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o (now Governor of Kisumu County) had a challenge similar to mine, the President, on February 9, 2011 appointed then Minister of State for Public Service, Dalmas Otieno as acting Minister for Medical Services. I was, therefore, requesting him to consider appointing an acting Minister.

He was very sympathetic. He said: “No, you just go and you can work from there. ICT makes it possible to work from anywhere and, therefore, I am not going to appoint anyone to act in your place.”

Before I travelled back to the US for treatment, I went public about my medical condition. In a widely covered press conference, I revealed the diagnosis and where treatment would take place. “I urge all women to get tested,” I told the media.

“You never know who will get cancer. It can be me. It can be you. It can be anyone. We must never be afraid to get tested,” I added. This was a first in Kenya for a woman to go public about the disease. At the time, cancer was stigmatised. No one wanted to talk about it publicly. After my press conference, the next day hospitals were full. A large number of women went for tests.

Back in the US, the first thing they did was to administer chemotherapy for a while. I would have a treatment every two weeks. It is uncomfortable but they do a lot of preparation. Miraculously, I did not have a lot of struggles, including nausea that many experience. However, my hair fell out during chemo treatment.

The hotel I was staying in offered me a working space. Mark Bor, the permanent secretary for Public Health and Sanitation sent notes for my review and signing. My assistant minister, James Gesami, attended Parliament to respond to questions on my behalf.

While in the US, my personal assistant, Rosalind Murimi and Patrick Maina, my husband Nicholas and my children Murugi, Ngina and Warren came to see me during the operation. During the whole duration of my treatment, my husband never left my side.

Hospitals can be lonesome. I realised that support from family is as critical as the treatment itself. Office work was a good distraction and probably made me heal faster and remain mentally alert. I also remained positive throughout the period of my treatment and this helped in my healing. I am, therefore, grateful to President Kibaki for allowing me to work while on treatment.

Senator Mugo encourages people living with Cancer to emulate Collymore's life

After 12 sessions of chemo, which lasted six months, I came back to Kenya, and later went back for surgery. I chose double mastectomy followed by full reconstruction, which lasted 10 hours. In the US, doctors do not believe in keeping people in hospital for long periods because hospitals, they say, are breeding grounds for diseases.

I was discharged from hospital after five days and taken to Rittenhouse Hotel from where medical personnel would study my recovery.

Mohamed Elmi, then Minister for Development of Northern Kenya and Arid Lands, Naomi Shabaan, then Minister for Gender and Special Programmes, Elkana Odembo, Kenya’s Ambassador to the United States based in Washington DC, Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s daughter, Winnie and Kenyan women leaders and parliamentarians led by Martha Karua and Rachel Shebesh visited me at the hotel.

The women MPs and leaders were in New York attending the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) conference and made the trip to Philadelphia by bus. It was really heartwarming to see them.

Afterwards, all tests were done and no cancer cell was found. I thank and praise God for His healing. This is a treatment method I would encourage Kenyan hospitals to adopt. I had read about this treatment from a movie star, Angelina Jolie, about her breast cancer journey. Mrs Renatta Whittaker, the wife of a renowned reconstructive surgeon chose this treatment. She told me she was declared free from cancer after several years and recommended it as the best method of treatment.

I read so much about the disease, especially the positive stories, while walking in the beautiful park of the hotel.

The doctor who attended to me was strict and, in particular, refused to allow visitors to meet me. Even when I was in the park walking or soaking in nature’s environmental beauty, I had to cover everything to prevent or reduce the risk of infections or colds because chemo is believed to lower the body's immunity.

My hair, which had fallen off, gradually grew back. Some nails that had been affected were restored. Everything returned to its original state. I was positive and determined to get back to normalcy and to Kenya as soon as possible.

Family therapy was also important. They gave me comfort. My husband, Ambassador Nicholas Mugo, my brother, Hon Ngengi Muigai, Mr Lawrence Wambaa and Mrs Anne Wambaa, their son Ngura Wambaa and my children stood by me during that trying period. The fear of death had hit me like a thunderbolt when I first got the news that I had a lump in my breast. “Am I going to die?”, I asked myself.

Back home, there was a rumour that I had died, perhaps because Kenya just lost its renowned leaders such as Environment Minister and Member of Parliament for Kangema Constituency, Hon John Michuki and businessman-cum-politician, Hon Njenga Karume. Jeff Koinange, a famous TV host, called me to establish the truth .He wanted to ascertain that I was really okay, which is good journalism. I commend him for his professionalism.

As a Christian, I saw the hand of God who gave me a second chance by healing me.

Then US Secretary for Health, Kathleen Sebelius invited me to Washington DC, where he hosted a reception for me at their State Department offices and introduced me to the American Cancer Society.

As I checked out of the passenger lobby at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) upon arrival in Nairobi, I met a throng of my constituents led by Tom Ng'ang'a who had come to receive me. They had hired five buses to come and welcome me at the airport.

A few days later, I had an interdenominational thanksgiving service at Ndurarua grounds in Riruta where very many people came for the service. Clergies from different denominations led the service.

I know many people, particularly women in my church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Happy Valley Church in Thika, and others were praying for me. I had condoled with them after they had an accident at Chilenze, Tanga in Tanzania where 13 members of the Women’s Guild died.

I am told they said, “God, please save this one.” They were disturbed because news of my cancer came shortly after the death of Professor Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cancer is an recurring disease. However, with this treatment, chances of survival are high. On this, I am glad that the administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta brought and installed top-notch equipment for cancer diagnosis and treatment at Kenyatta University Teaching, Research and Referral Hospital.

Indeed, doctors treat but God heals. I believe it is God who healed me. I praise and thank Him for His mercies. He gave me another chance and I vowed to serve him throughout my life. I will continue serving Him until He calls me home.

Getting a second chance at anything is spirit-lifting. But getting a second chance at life is mind-boggling. It happened to me after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, got treated, and declared free of the disease.

After my cancer experience, I felt obliged to not only thank God for my survival but to also go out of my way and give back to the society.

I settled on establishing a cancer foundation and picked my name for its identity: Beth Mugo Cancer Foundation (BMCF).It started as an idea but my granddaughter Wambui Nyachae firmed it up assisted by Dr Anne Wamae, the then head of family health department at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

Much as my diagnosis in 2010 with breast cancer was devastating, my successful treatment made me realise that this disease is not a death sentence, especially if detected and treated early. I was lucky to get a second chance at life, which is not the case for many cancer patients. Thus, forming a cancer foundation was one of the boldest steps I could make to help people acquire the right information about the condition through regular screening and promoting prevention and treatment to reduce its negative effect on their health, social and economic lives.

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