I’m down but not out
When we arrive at his house in Doonholm, Nairobi, on a Friday afternoon, we find Eliud Abong’o catching up with the day’s events on television and flipping through the newspapers.
Although the 32-year-old freelance journalist’s body has been ravaged by colon cancer, forcing him to take leave from work, he is cheerful and remains optimistic that he will be back on his feet after he undergoes an operation in India.
His wife, Joyce Wambui Abong’o, 30, says her husband’s illness has taken a great toll on the family financially, but has also turned out to be a test of true love.
“I thank God for a wife who has overcome ethnic prejudice and has been a source of encouragement and support during this trying time,” Abong’o agrees.
Abong’o’s problem began about three years ago, with what seemed like ordinary stomach pains. Initially, the doctors prescribed antacids to alleviate what they believed were stomach ulcers.
Some thought he had malaria, and at one point he was diagnosed with typhoid. Most of these turned out to be wrong, thanks to the lack of the equipment for diagnosing colon cancer.
Meanwhile, his intestines were getting enlarged. He became anaemic, lost weight and spent huge amounts of money on hospital bills.
“At one time I paid Sh84,000 for three nights in hospital and was discharged without a diagnosis,” Abong’o recalls of one of his many trips in search of treatment.
With his condition only getting worse, and bowel movement almost impossible, in 2008, Abong’o decided to consult a specialist at Kenyatta National Hospital, who finally diagnosed colon cancer and ordered an operation immediately.
Abong’o recalls the doctor telling him that he required an urgent operation, which had to be authorised by a family member. That evening, Abong’o broke the news gently to his wife to cushion her from possible shock.
“He told me that the doctor had found growths in his stomach and required my permission to operate to remove them,” Wambui recalls, adding that her husband made no mention of cancer.
“I was not unduly worried because I had heard of many people with growths in their bodies that had been successfully removed,” she adds.
“The next day I accompanied him to hospital and signed the forms, after which he was taken to the theatre at 11a.m.” Wambui recalls of what she describes as the longest day in her life.
“At around 4p.m., I went to look for the doctor because the operation had taken longer than I expected,” she explains.
Wambui only learnt that her husband had cancer from the doctor when he sent her with a sample to the lab for tests.
“Tears ran down my cheeks when the doctor told me my husband had cancer. I went into shock and could not visit him in the ward that day,” she recalls.
“But when I visited him the next day, he encouraged me, telling me that we would sail through this storm bound by love.” she recalls.
The operation entailed making a bypass to circumvent the obstruction caused by the tumor, and necessitated the use the colostomy bags.
“I was also shocked to see the colostomy bags but I am now used to them and we have sworn to fight this disease together,” she asserts.
Meanwhile, Abong’o continued attending chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, but his condition worsened at the beginning of November last year, forcing him to take sick leave in mid-March this year.
The tumor had grown and was pressing on his kidney, making another surgery inevitable.
So Abong’o is scheduled to travel to India for an operation which will cost an estimated Sh4 million.
“I will not just sit and await death because I believe I’m a victor,” Abongo asserts. “But above all, I’m grateful to be alive, and for a loving and caring family.”
Longtime media personality Fred Obachi Machoka, who is leading the fundraising for Abong’o’s medical trip, says the journalist’s fighting spirit is admirable.
“He is a confident and determined person whose passion for the airwaves is unmatched.” Machoka further describes him as “a gentle boy”, given that he rose from a humble background after losing his parents when he was still young.
Although he is grateful for having a supportive wife, Abong’o is saddened by the fact that hundreds of Kenyans are grappling with the disease, unaware of any support network to help them cope.
The eldest in a family of four siblings, Abong’o remembers with nostalgia how his uncle mentored him through school and hopes to do the same by nurturing talent in young boys after he recovers from his operation.
“My desire from an early age was to empower the public by giving them information” he says. And he embarked on his long-desired mission in 2003, when he became a journalist.
He studied television and radio production at the Kenya Institute of Mass communication and worked with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation while still a student before moving to Family TV, then Citizen TV as a sports anchor and later to Radio Simba before his current assignments with Radio Ramogi and BBC radio, where he is a news presenter.
Abong’o, who is under observation at Kenyatta National Hospital before he leaves for India, promises his listeners, “I am not done yet, I will be back.” And this time with a foundation to create nationwide awareness of colon cancer.
Prevalence of colon cancer
According to the Nairobi Cancer Registry (2006) based at KEMRI, colon cancer accounts for 3.2 per cent of cancers in men and 2.3 per cent of the cancers in women.
It is the seventh commonest in men and the ninth commonest in women and ranks third among gastrointestinal tumors after oesophagus (throat) and stomach cancers in both men and women, oncologist Dr G. Gichuru-Kiarie notes.
Suspected cases are not included in the above estimate.
“Prevalence is believed to be higher, though diagnosis of the disease is made difficult by lack of personnel as well as equipment for detecting it in many medical centres around the country,” she adds.
The risk increases with age, especially for people above 50 years,” she says.
Diets rich in fats, oils and poor in roughage and fruits and a family history of cancer, whether of the colon, ovary or breasts are among the triggers, she adds.
Studies also show that a diet high in red meat and low in fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry and fish increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle can also predispose one to cancer, and experts advise against high consumption of fatty and high-calorie foods.
“Pre-malignant polyps or growths in the colon can also be contributing factors, as can be habits such as smoking and drinking,” Gichuru-Kiarie, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Clinical Medicine and therapeutics, says. But if they are removed during colonoscopy, the risk is reduced.
Colorectal cancer, also called colon cancer or large bowel cancer, includes cancerous growths in the colon, rectum and appendix.
Medical experts say colorectal cancers arise from adenomatous polyps, mushroom-shaped growths in the colon that are initially benign, although some become cancerous with time.
The symptoms of colorectal cancer depend on the location of the tumor and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.
Although colon cancer is hard to diagnose immediately because it has symptoms similar to those of other diseases, Dr Gichuru-Kiarie points out that changes in bowel movement such as constipation, diarrhoea and incomplete emptying of bowels are indicators of a possible onset.
Other indicators include bloating, gas and vomiting, blood in the stool, weakness and fatigue, anaemia and unexplained weight loss.
“Obstruction or difficulty in emptying the bowels should also be reported to the doctor immediately,” she advises.