Carol Atuhirwe passed on yesterday from an Indian hospital where she has been undergoing treatment. Most cancer victims lose the battle amid excruciating pain but Atuhirwe might have breathed her last with a thank-you smile after the love the country showered her with throughout her ordeal.
She was 31 and probably left this world before she had heard of the expression the ‘smile of pain.’ But the diseases that tormented her for six years must have taught her to experience a smile of pain, what with heartbreaks when two boyfriends rudely abandoned her for being sick.
Atuhirwe’s face was almost incomplete without an infectious smile. Even before the cancer. With the cancer, she wore a smile of pain, the kind an online site describes as the toughest curve on earth. It is that smile that you fake so that the people who truly love you and care for you aren’t hurt to see you sad.
The cancer that has claimed Atuhirwe, the same cancer that made two men she had believed were dear to hear heart away, that cancer is also the one that brought to Atuhirwe thousands of Ugandans that made her experience the smile of pain.
“When I think of all those that have contributed without knowing me from Uganda and the diaspora, I cry not because am sick but because of all your goodness to me,” Atuhirwe had said in her ‘thank you” note during a special Mass organised for her at All Saints Cathedral, Nakasero, last year. “You have been a blessing to me and I will forever be thankful. If we can maintain this unity, I believe God will bless this world even more. My dear friends, we can do good deeds God in heaven being our guide.”
When she blocked about the men who had abandoned her, Atuhirwe had said: “I have been heart broken, two times because of my sickness. The second one said ‘Even the police fear cancer.’ I didn’t understand he was breaking up with me. I thought he was a gentleman, like he used to lie that he is different from other men.
“Come to think of it other men are better than him. I wish he could come pick his fake ring. I have never hated anyone but don’t have the guts to hate this one?”
Last year, Atuhirwe’s condition was brought to public attention by friends who had decided to seek help for her to get treatment abroad. She had throat cancer and needed $80,000 to travel abroad for surgery. She had been scheduled to undergo the treatment from Cleveland University Hospital, US.
Public relations guru Muhereza Kyamutetera received the clip of the video asking for help on Whatsapp and was touched by Atuhirwe’s plight. After visiting her in hospital, Kyamutetera got down to work, bringing out the best of her marketing skills to rally well-wishers on social media to join in funding the full amount and also supporting her morally.
Under the hashtag, #SaveCarol, the crowd funding took a full swing for the better, attracting individuals, organisations as well as government agencies. Car wash fundraisers were organised around the city and in some upcountry towns like Mbarara. By the time the campaign closed, it had raised more than Shs50 million in excess.
Kyamutetera, who has since become the face of such campaigns for the needy seeking medical help, said the bigger message from #SaveCarol campaign was that while Ugandans could contribute to save a life, government should do its job.
“We ought to push for the basic cancer treatment facilities at regional hospitals and Mulago Hospital,” Kyamutetera said during an interview with NBS Television last year.
However, the funds would not be the only problem, Atuhirwe’s effort to travel for treatment was variously delayed when she was denied a chance to go to USA where she had arranged for the surgery.
She would also be battled with lung cancer, which further compounded her situation.
The delays were mainly because the Government decided that a bureaucratic process was the only way to authorise Atuhirwe’s urgent need for treatment, leaving matters at the hands of the Medical Board of the Ministry of Health. Public backlash over the delays eventually saw the Government clear the patient to travel, only for fate to slap another setback. This time, the doctors who were scheduled to operate on Atuhirwe reportedly pulled out.
A search for medical facilities willing to take up her treatment started, and she was eventually flown to India where she has been since last year.
How the disease revealed itself
Born April 9, 1986, the graduate of Industrial and Fine Art from Uganda Christian University, Mukono, was in final semester of her second year when the disease revealed itself to her.
“It was in the year 2011; I was just in my second year, last semester at campus when I started coughing small amounts of blood. I didn’t take things seriously until third year when I started losing my voice. I thought it was like any other loss of voice,” Atuhirwe is quoted as blogging.
Because she thought it was a common ailment, Atuhirwe turned to common drugs to try and clear her throat. Things did not help and her vocal functions deteriorated. She spoke of the challenges that came with this setback, such as stigma when fellow students mocked her in class and the pain.
But she was not going to bin her two years in college just because of the throat. She was determined to complete her studies. When she completed her final examinations, the destination was Mulago Hospital for check-up. She had throat cancer, tests showed.
Atuhirwe would spend a year at Mulago Cancer Institute undergoing various treatment regimens. She even had to graduate while hospitalised—taking a few hours away from the hospital to attend her graduation before returning to what was becoming her second home.
At the cancer institute, she underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a surgery for after the disease had affected her oesophagus, exposed her spine and dislocated the trachea.
Atuhirwe’s battle with cancer might have come to public attention—or Kyamutetera for that matter—a little too late given the cancer had already progressed to stage three when she reached out for help.
About throat cancer
Throat cancer is cancer of the voice box, the vocal cords, and other parts of the throat, such as the tonsils. Throat cancer is often grouped into two categories: pharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer. Symptoms of throat cancer include coughing up blood, trouble swallowing, and swollen lymph nodes.
In cancer treatment and therapy, oncologists rely on stage of the disease, which underlines the progression, to determine the treatment, making the stage one of the most important factors in evaluating treatment options.
In stage I, throat cancer tumour is small (7 cm or less across) and limited to the throat. In stage II, the tumour has grown larger but still remains within the throat. There is no evidence of spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.
In stage III, throat cancer tumour has grown beyond the throat and may now extend into nearby tissues or organs. A stage IV throat cancer tumor may be any size and has grown beyond the throat. The cancer may have spread to lymph nodes or distant sites.