My journey to beating cancer of pancreas

Joan Wangare

Joan Wangare, a pancreatic cancer survivor, during the interview at her home in Dandora, Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In September 2011, at just 27, Ms Wangari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
  • A CT scan of her abdomen also revealed a big mass of tumour was obstructing her bile duct.

Radiant. If you met 37-year-old Joan Wangari in the streets, the thought of her being a cancer survivor would be unlikely to cross your mind. Her personality is warm and bubbly. 

It is not until you strike a conversation with her that you get to know that this is her ninth year in remission; after she was diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer. 

In September 2011, at just 27, Ms Wangari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

At first she thought she was just bloated and having an allergic reaction to something she had eaten.

However, it was the tingling and itchiness in the palms of her hands that got her on edge.  “It felt like things were crawling under my skin and I just couldn’t stop scratching my palms and the back of my hands.”

When the prodromes persisted, Ms Wangari decided to go to hospital, where even the first doctors she saw in Mombasa thought she was reacting to something.  “The doctor prescribed some painkillers and some pills for the perceived allergic reaction.”

Biopsy procedure

Despite the check-up, the signs persisted. Ms Wangari ended up being admitted to a private hospital for one week after some scans and other probe tests showed a tumour was growing in her pancreas.

A CT scan of her abdomen also revealed a big mass of tumour was obstructing her bile duct.

Further tests – including a type of biopsy procedure known as Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) – showed the mass was cancerous.  “I had to suspend the business I was doing, leave my three-year-old son behind to travel to Nairobi for the six-hour surgery.”

One week after surgery, she was discharged but told to hang around Nairobi awaiting biopsy results, which came after a month. It was cancer of the pancreas, the doctors at Nairobi Hospital told her.

In 2012, Ms Wangari welcomed the new year by starting chemotherapy at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). After three months, the disease was stable, but the tumour was not getting smaller.

At the end of the first set of chemotherapy, Ms Wangari got pregnant. However, at seven months, she lost her baby.


Three months after the miscarriage, she did her tumour marker test to ascertain the progress.

The test confirmed her worst fears.  “The cancer cells were growing faster, so my doctor recommended switching to a different chemotherapy regimen.”

Unlike the initial six rounds, the 12 sessions using combination treatment brought more uncomfortable side effects. Her nails and skin turned black. She lost her hair and was vomiting uncontrollably.

“As a patient you don’t even notice those things. They’re brought to your attention by the people who see you.”

In April 2014, Ms Wangari was declared to be in remission after completing the last round, totalling to 18 sessions of chemo.

Ms Wangari delivered a bouncing baby girl in December 2015.

She has one message for others going through treatment.

“Believe in your doctor. Local treatment is as good as that offered abroad as long as you have faith.”


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