Waiting to die: The pain of being a poor cancer patient

Agatha Mumbi

Ms Agatha Mumbi, who was diagnosed with liver cancer, during the interview on October 27. She died on October31.

Photo credit: Mercy Simiyu | Nation Media Group

Jennifer Kilonzo lies on her bed in her single-room iron sheet house. A black 14-inch analogue TV stands on the right. Some clothes hang on the wall. An old green kerosene stove stands in one corner of the room, next to some yellow jerrycans.

In the middle of the room stands a wooden stool with a small transparent container on it. Looking at it closely, you can see a small piece of tissue inside a preservative. We later learn that the tissue had been removed from Ms Kilonzo’s breast for testing. This is her only hope of knowing whether she is going to be okay.

Ms Kilonzo stares at the specimen for a while before reading a Bible verse from 2 Corinthians.

“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” These are the words she seems to live by.

It is one o’clock; time for lunch. Ms Kilonzo puts the container in her small handbag. She is going to St Bakhita church in Mukuru, where she gets her meals.

“I used to do everything for myself. I would cook, clean, and do everything, but now I cannot do anything. I have no appetite. I feel as if something is eating me from the inside,” she says.

She does not even have the warmth of her family, only her 12-year-old son.

“I am the lastborn child in my family. My brother lives nearby but he never talks to me. I told them I have been diagnosed with cancer, but no one visits me or calls me.”

Ms Kilonzo recounts her journey with cancer.

“I started feeling ill in 2020 and went to different doctors, but the tests did not find anything. They just gave me painkillers. When I did not get better, I decided to go back home to Machakos. I wanted to be close to my family.

“I started going to the hospital in Machakos and in November 2021 I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. When they told me I had cancer, I did not feel anything; I was numb. Afterwards, the first thing that came to my mind was, how was I going to pay for the treatment?”

She started her chemotherapy treatment in February this year and completed the course.

“The doctors said they needed to check if the cancer was still there. Unfortunately, they found that it had spread to the bones. That’s when they did an operation and took some specimens. They referred me to Kenyatta (National) Hospital, but I was sent back to Machakos because they did not have the details of my file.

“When I went back to Kenyatta they told me to go to Aga Khan Hospital. I needed to pay Sh1,500 to open a file and I did not have the money. I offered to pay with my NHIF (National Health Insurance Fund) card, but they said it does not cover that. I came back home and I am just waiting, I don’t know for what. I live on painkillers,” she says.

Of the specimen in the container, Ms Kilonzo says: “When I came to Nairobi they had removed a specimen from my breast and I was to take it to Kenyatta Hospital. I have just been walking around with it.”

Tracy Irura, a radiation oncologist at the Kenyatta University Teaching Referral and Research Hospital, said cells in a specimen degenerate after a month. She confirmed that the NHIF cover doesn’t include consultation fees.

Ms Kilonzo finds it difficult to come to terms with her diagnosis.

“I never thought that I would have cancer. I never went for any screening. I don’t know where to go. Had it not been for the church, I don’t know what I would do,” she says.

Agatha Mumbi, a single mother of two, has been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. But she does not know this because her family has chosen not to tell her, afraid that it would kill her spirit. So, as she lies on her brown couch vomiting in a red bucket, she is hoping for answers to her ailment, and to get well.

She weakly tries to sit up to greet us. Her eyes are a strange pale yellow.

“When I throw up, my neighbours will know because of the smell. It’s as if something is rotting inside my body,” she explains.

Ms Mumbi ‘s tribulations started in 2021. She felt a great discomfort in her stomach and went to the nearest chemist.

“They gave me amoeba medicine but after 10 days there was no change, just bitterness on my tongue. I decided to go back but they told me it was normal and gave me chewable medicine to help with the bad taste in my mouth. But things just got worse. ”

Before she fell ill, she was hawking “mali mali” and rearing chickens. “But now I do not have anything and have to depend on people. My family sold the farm and all the chickens we had; now we only have one. I am so scared because I do not know what will happen in the future,” Ms Mumbi laments.

Before 2021 Ms Kilonzo and Ms Mumbi did not know each other. They had nothing in common. Until cancer came visiting and St Bakhita church brought them together.

Ms Kilonzo understands the fate that awaits her after her treatment failed and the cancer spread. But it is different for Ms Mumbi, who still hopes to get better.

“The doctor told us she has liver cancer but we have chosen not to tell her because we are scared. Look at her. What will happen if we tell her? She has hope and it’s not okay to take it away from her,” said Juliana, Ms Mumbi’s sister.

She went back to the hospital for an X-ray and, according to her, the doctors confirmed to her that she was okay. She said further tests revealed that she had a problem with her liver. She was put on treatment for three months, but there was no change. They sent her to the German Hospital for a scan and according to her, they found nothing wrong.

“They said the veins were clogged. They sent me to Kenyatta, where I have been going for a while. Some doctors say I should have surgery, others recommend something else, through the mouth,” she says.

“They said they wanted other scans to see where to operate. My sister took me to the Doctors’ Plaza and we found a doctor who did it. They said they will fix a stent pipe for three months, then they will check if there is cancer. But the problem was money because they wanted a deposit of Sh100,000,” said Ms Mumbi.

“A good Samaritan paid for the procedure. I was supposed to pay an additional Sh108,000, but I did not have the funds. So we decided to come back home. I am still waiting,” Ms Mumbi said.

Sadly, we received news that Ms Mumbi died on October 31.