- For one it was mommy’s strength and dad’s support that kept her going, for the other it was the will to live. But both learnt the secret to happiness is family and healthy lifestyle choices. Felista Wangari reports
Looking back on the harrowing experience of having their mothers fight breast cancer roughly two decades ago, Naomi Konditi-Kivuvani and Monica Sumbi-Matiri learned unforgettable lessons on fighting cancer and supporting others to do the same.
Having gone through the experience earlier, Naomi’s mother, the late Linda Chamberlain Konditi, offered support to Monica’s mother Wanza Sumbi when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Monica’s mother was declared disease-free 17 years ago, but Linda succumbed to the disease after a brave 14-year fight marred by three recurrences of the cancer after promising remissions.
Naomi and Monica share the lessons they learned from the experiences.
The last thing Monica expected to hear seven days after her mother had been treated for a cold was that her mother Wanza had breast cancer. There was no history of the disease in her family and she did not think either she or her mother was at risk.
Monica’s dad broke the news that a biopsy was being done to check if a lump found in her mother’s breast was cancerous. It was. But though Monica’s mum changed a bit as she fought the disease, and the brutal chemotherapy treatments, she put on a brave face that denied the magnitude of the pain she was enduring.
“On the one hand I was traumatised seeing my erstwhile jovial and energetic, do-it-all mother turn into a limp, withdrawn and almost lifeless woman; and it was hard fighting thoughts that she was going to die. But on the other hand she put up a brave fight that convinced me that she would beat the disease,” she explains.
Her mother’s strength, and her father’s persuasion that she continue building her life (because there was not much she could do at home anyway), helped her deal with the dilemma of whether to stay home with her ailing mother or enroll for her first year at university in Eldoret, many miles away.
“Mum was so strong. She called me every Wednesday at school, at a time when there were no mobile phones, to reassure me that all was well, and visited when she could just to maintain a sense of normalcy.
She never tired of taking her daily dose of Tamoxifen, faithfully for five years, until she was declared cancer-free. She fought for her life, prayed victoriously, never played the victim, never dwelt on ‘what-ifs’ and offered support to others who were battling cancer,” she remembers.
“Don’t leave me”
The one time Monica remembers her mother falter in the presence of her family was just before a chemotherapy session; her mother broke down as they left, telling them not to leave her alone.
She even pleaded with them not to take her to hospital if the cancer ever recurred because she could not bear to go through chemotherapy again. It was also hard for Monica to see and hear about the deaths of women in her mother’s support group over the years, and dealing with the thought that her mother might be next.
“Mum later told me that the hardest part was when she thought she would rather die than have a mastectomy. After she had dealt with that, she was determined to live and her battle was with the effects of the chemo,” she discloses.
Another thing that Monica and her siblings gained from their mother’s battle with cancer was the importance of a healthy diet. They especially cut back on eating meat, milk and sugar which their mother insists have cancer-causing properties.
“It is hard not to change when you are shocked into it by having someone close to you battle cancer. I would not wish cancer on anyone, but seeing my mother’s strength and triumph over it taught me lessons not only for fighting cancer, but also navigating through life,” she explains.
Naomi Konditi-Kivuvani also treasures the lessons she learnt from walking with her mother through her battle with cancer. And for her, Octobers are not just a reminder of the need to have regular health checks; they also remind her of her mum’s courageous fight against the disease, and her death nine years ago this month.
Naomi was only 11 years old when her elder brother disclosed that their mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she has never forgotten the priceless lessons she learnt in the years that followed.