BY Judith Sheenah Kyamutetera
KAMPALA – My journey with breast cancer began in May 2016. Upon our return, I noticed a lump in my breast. It was darker than my natural skin but did not cause me any pain at all. At the time, I had a one-year-old child who was still breastfeeding so I figured this could be the cause. I was confident it would subside whilst the baby suckled on the breast. This, however, was not the case. The lump remained persistent. My husband and I agreed that we needed to see a doctor but he was very busy at the time. Days passed but my mind was not at peace. I decided to go have it checked although I was really not worried.
I was advised to see a gynecologist who concluded that it was an infection brought from breastfeeding a baby. Despite the fact that there is no cancer in my family history, I had an inkling to ask if it could be breast cancer. He dismissed this and assured me it was simply an infection. He gave me medication and sent me home. I relaxed. Three days later, I lost an aunt. It was rumored that cancer claimed her life and my concerns returned, yet again.
When I returned to the gynecologist for review, he was not around. One of the patients in line advised me to go to Nsambya Hospital for a better opinion. The next day, I did and the lump was tested. The doctors proposed that I should wait and receive my results there and then. While I waited, it finally hit me that the results could turn out positive and I was all alone. I called my husband and threw a tantrum as I felt he was not making my health a priority- it was probably the fear talking.
Within a few minutes, he came to the hospital and we were told that the results were a tad bit confusing. I had to check in the next day for a thorough test to reach a definite conclusion. They did a biopsy to examine the tissue more meticulously and I was told to return after a week. The day we were supposed to pick the results, my husband came home questionably early.
The kids were on holiday so when he got into the house, I heard him ask for me and they all came to the room in which I was. He said the results were ready so I went to the room to prepare. Shortly after, he followed me into our bedroom and broke the news.
The results were out and they were positive. He broke down.
Just as I was about to break down, one of our children came into the room so I chose to be strong for him. I composed myself but so many thoughts run through my mind. I had no idea what was next. I was not prepared for this. How did this happen? No one in my family had been sick before. How could this be? Is it real? Why me? I knew we had to act fast though. There was no time to lament. The very next day we began processing all the necessary documents to leave the country.
Our passports had expired that every month so we had to find a way to renew them as fast as possible. We contacted a few friends who contributed some cash as we were not in any way prepared for this- emotionally or financially. We barely had any savings but our friends were extremely generous and supportive. We left for Nairobi the next day. Once we arrived in Nairobi, we did 3 days of tests and it was established that I had breast cancer-stage 3. The doctors assessed my condition and recommended a mastectomy to remove the infected breast, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy to restore my complete well-being.
This news was tough to hear and emotionally, I was ready to die. What saddened me most was the fact that I was going to leave my 1-year-old baby behind without a mother. I thought about it and appreciated that if the worst came to the worst, I would be sick for 4 years and die when my children have grown up a little.
We did the operation in Nairobi and were told to return for the medication after three weeks, as the wound needed to heal. This time was emotionally challenging for me. I would look into the mirror and wonder why this had to happen. I was perfectly healthy a week before, but now there I was sick and missing my breast. My biggest worry at the time was my husband’s reaction to me having only one breast. Little did I know, the doctors had shown him the incision even before I left the theater. I determined in my heart that I would do plastic surgery but later I realized I can do without it. The person I was worried about knowing what had happened so if he wanted to go, he would have already left.
I remember one day one of my sons walked into my room while I was dressing up and he made an alarm upon the realization that I had only one breast. He called his brother and they made fun. It hurt me but I realized these are children. I made peace with it and life went on.
Three weeks later, we went back to Nairobi to begin the chemotherapy treatment. I received my first dose and we returned to Uganda.
Despite the fact that I had read so much about the side effects of chemotherapy, nothing prepared me for what I went through. I suffered a running stomach, low appetite, discomfort, vomiting, among other things. I took each day at a time and it got better. I started to eat organic and as healthy as I could. I had so much love and support from my family and friends, which kept me going. I got rid of all negative energy in that if anyone called me while crying or lamenting, I would tell them to first compose themselves and then call me back.
My friends knew that if they were coming to see me, it would have to be laughter and normal conversation. I realized this was not the end of the world. I had a second chance at life. The doctors had advised me to stay home and away from people but that is not who I am. I love people. After about four doses of the therapy, I started attending parties and living life as usual. After a few doses in Nairobi, I found out that chemotherapy is the same no matter where you get it. I decided to do the rest of my doses here in Uganda.
I was very skeptical about the cancer institute and fortunately, I found a very good private doctor. When he did some tests, he revealed that I needed a certain rare drug to prevent cancer from reoccurring. It was to cost us $1300 per dose, in addition to the chemotherapy treatment. Basically, I was spending about 5.5 million shillings on each dose which was I had to receive every 3 weeks. It put a huge financial strain on us as a family since we were only depending on my husband as the sole provider.
I was not working, four children to feed and life had to go on as normal for them. We later decided to switch the children’s school since the school they were in did not have a van and I was no longer in position to pick and drop them as I used to. All was going well until I started to experience hair loss. I used to wear a cap and every time I would remove it, hair would come off with it. When I would rest my head anywhere, hair would remain in that place. I went to the salon to trim it and advised the lady not to comb it out as I was not ready to start explaining my story. With time, I just started plucking it off with my hands until it was all off. Losing hair was the most traumatizing because you lose all the hair completely, eyelashes, eyebrows, everything goes! All my life I have hated hair pieces but I had no choice because the head just looked so bad. Many of my girlfriends helped me get nice pieces and I started to make peace. It put me down for a while but I realized later that it could have been worse. I remember one day I was at a party and while I was greeting a friend, the piece fell off. The people around struggled to put it back and when they did it was put sideways. It was hilarious.
In November, I was advised to do a PET scan to ascertain whether or not the treatment was working and to what extent. I decided to do it in India along with the radiotherapy since both services are not available in Uganda. When we arrived there, we had no clue where to find anything, where to go or how to get there. A friend recommended a medical tourism company called Magnus that literally helped us with everything. Ordering uber, changing money, finding hotels, book the hospital, basically they made our stay that much easier.
We did the PET scan which revealed that I was cancer-free. I had done 17 doses of the chemotherapy and still had 8 more to go. I did some in India and later came back in January to do the rest here in Uganda. After all the doses were finished, I went back to India for another PET scan which revealed that I was completely cancer free. While I was on my last journey to India, I felt a strong conviction to bring this medical tourism company to Uganda as many of us go for treatment and face a lot of challenges being in a foreign country with no assistance. The sickness is enough stress to deal with. I spoke to the company and they agreed to partner with me. In July, I launched it here in Uganda.
Essentially, once you have decided to go to India for your treatment, we get you 6 quotations from different hospitals for you to compare, depending on the disease you are suffering from. We give you an estimate of the medication and procedure you will need and how much it is likely to cost, which doctor you may see, among other things. We also provide an attendant to advise you on the life in India, tell you where to find what and in effect make your stay a little less stressful. We also connect your doctor in India to the one in Uganda to make your review that much simpler. The best part of this service is that it is free of charge.
I am currently taking some drugs that I must be diligent about for the next 5 years however, I am cancer free. Praise the Lord. I would like to tell ladies out there to make it a point to go for breast cancer screening as this was not a pretty experience. For those going through the battle, I would like to encourage you and tell you that your situation is not permanent. If I can make it, so can you. Right now, I am much stronger and I believe I can handle any situation life gives me. God has given me another shot at life and I am more equipped for any challenge. Please do not fear to go for screening because if you wait, you will find it’s too late while now you can get early treatment and move on with life. Choose life.”
Judith Sheenah Kyamutetera is the Country Head of Magnus MediTourism, a medical tourism Company. She is also a wife and mother of four. For over a year, she fought the dreadful battle against breast cancer. Today, she is cancer-free.