Guest Post – Miriam Mwihaki Ndirangu

October, yet another month of breast cancer awareness, marked in countries across the world with the aim of increasing attention and support for awareness, early diagnosis, and treatment as well as palliative care for women and men facing this disease.

Statistics have it that in every 8 women, 1 will be diagnosed with breast cancer. I was the one….and this is my breast cancer journey.

DIAGNOSIS

In July of 2016, while getting ready for a wedding, I noticed my right breast nipple was inverted than the left one. This raised some concern of which I shared with my late mother, who recommended I go for a breast checkup. I went ahead to see a general physician who ruled out that there was nothing to worry about.

Fast forward to October, I decided to go for one of those ‘free’ screening of the breast, a process that also suggested there was nothing to worry about. However, my nipple was still inverted and at this point, when I pressed on it some discharge would come out. I took the step to go see a breast surgeon who once again ruled out the possibility of any concern. However, for the purpose of ruling out any concerns (of which I had many) he suggested I do an ultra sound to be able to give a more comprehensive outlook of what was happening with my breast. It`s during this process that they noticed a very small lump in my right breast. What would follow was a biopsy of the lump to ascertain whether it was benign (harmless) or malignant (cancerous). The period of waiting for the biopsy results is a horrible one. Being stuck in worry without relief for 2 weeks. I lacked clarity in life, I was only 31 years of age, a mother to 2 year old twin girls and a young wife. I imagined the worst despite trying so hard to stay positive, fear engulfed me given we had a family history of relatives whose lives had been cut short by this very disease cancer.

As fate would have it, that phone call came through for me to go get my results, and they were positive. I was diagnosed with stage 4 of HER2-positive breast cancer in November, 2016. And even though I’d been concerned about that small lump in my breast for months at that point, I was entirely unprepared for the shock of the diagnosis. I went through a period of disbelief and denial, leading me to seek a second opinion which unfortunately gave the same outcome.

TREATMENT

Once the diagnosis news had sank in, I immediately underwent a series of tests including blood count to ensure the levels of red and white cells are at a healthy level before undertaking treatment. They say you can never choose your family, but God chose the right one for me. One can never under estimate the amount of support one requires in such trying times. My family rallied behind me 100% offering moral, spiritual and financial help, and I’m forever indebted to them. With the help of my doctors, a treatment plan was quickly formulated on how to take on this monster.

My oncologist started me off with 6 sessions of chemotherapy, a form of invasive treatment which is used to interfere with cancer cells ability to divide and reproduce. The course of treatment ranged between a single dosage with a 3 week break before the next one, to allow the body to recover from the side effects of the treatment. I then went back for a scan, which unfortunately revealed the spread of the cancer cells to my lungs. The doctors settled for a radical form of treatment where I was put in a 2nd line of chemo with higher dosage, with the aim of reducing the cancerous nodules that were now in my lungs, before I could undertake breast surgery.  The 2nd treatment is what revealed the ugly side of cancer. I experienced severe fatigue, loss of hair, loss of appetite, my skin color darkened, my nails became brittle, dark and almost came off, I lost so much weight not to mention the mental torture of the entire process, among other severe side effects.

After 6 cycles of chemotherapy, the disease progression had delayed, allowing me to undergo surgery for a single mastectomy to remove the ailing breast and also prevent possible recurrence. The surgery was a success, although losing any body organ has its own challenges, but I concurred. I was cancer free for a while, and highly proud of myself for putting up a great fight. However, that was short lived, this monster struck again, this time metastasizing to my lungs and brain – this is a whole story for another day, but I still fight on, one battle at a time.

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Everyone`s battle with cancer is unique, and I am full of experiences, cancer had no problem providing them. Over the past 2 years, I have gone through chemotherapy, surgeries, radiation and hormone therapy. It has been nothing short of a whirlwind. If I were to fully pen down what that has been, I couldn’t even remember some of it. But looking back to it all, the things I have endured and survived have made me realize how much I have grown and learned in my cancer fight, you can never lose vision, when you lose vision you perish. I have remained focused and emotionally strong to fight this disease, it has not been easy. I have given up numerous times, but I find strength and pick myself up. Like Eliud Kipchoge proved to us, there is no human limit, you have to push yourself beyond your expectations.

LESSONS FROM CANCER

  1.  Early diagnosis remains the cornerstone of breast cancer control. When found early, and if adequate diagnosis and treatment are available, there is a good chance that breast cancer can be cured.
  2. One can never ignore the voice of your body, it does communicate with you when something is off, learn to be proactive with your own health.
  3. Cancer treatment is a financial killer, it will drain the last cent in your pocket, be insured and do your research on affordable treatment.
  4. Surround yourself with a support group, this can be your family, friends, employer, other cancer patients and even doctors, you will need all the support you can get to fight on.
  5. Cancer does interrupt your life, one has to adapt to a new reality especially in lifestyle. Committing to a healthy diet as advised does help a lot.
  6. Family genetics does increase the risk of relatives getting cancer. If a relative has cancer, it’s only wise to go for routine screening to rule out the obvious.
  7. Ask questions, as many as you can. Stay informed by doing a lot of research, although most patients are advised to stay away from doctor Google, but do your research either way.
  8. To those newly diagnosed with this disease, you can do it. The fight starts mentally, you must have a sober mind and the will to fight.
  9. You can never walk without God in this fight, be spiritually strong and you shall find clarity.
  10. Beware of misdiagnosis, seek a 2nd even 3rd opinion.

SYMPTOMS OF BREAST CANCER

The first symptoms of breast cancer usually appear as thickened tissue in the breast or a lump in breast or an armpit. Regular self-checks can help you notice this.

Other symptoms include;

  1. A sunken or inverted nipple
  2. Discharge from a nipple that possibly contains blood
  3. A change in the size or shape of the breast
  4. Pain in the armpits or breast that does not change.
  5. Dimpling of the skin on the breast
  6. Swelling, redness or darkening of the breast

STAGING

The stage of breast cancer is one of the important factors in evaluating treatment options.

Stage 0:  This is the earliest breast cancer stage. At this point, the breast mass is noninvasive and there is no indication that the cancer cells will spread to other parts of the breast. No treatment is offered at this stage.

Stage 1: In this stage, the cancer cells have spread beyond the original location and into the surrounding breast tissue. There is a small tumor that measures up to 2 cm with no lymph nodes. Stage 1 cancer can be treated.

Stage 2: Stage two is also known as invasive breast cancer. The tumor at this point measures between 2 cm to 5 cm. usually the disease at this stage has not spread to other parts of the body.

Stage 3: Also known as locally advanced breast cancer. The tumor in this stage has grown bigger to 2 inches, meaning the cancer cells have spread to other tissues near the breast. Treatment at this stage still remains promising in terms of survival.

Stage 4: This stage is also known as metastatic breast cancer where the disease has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body. The affected areas include bones, brain, lungs or liver. This is the final stage of cancer and an aggressive form of treatment is given.

I would wish to thank everybody who has walked with me in this journey, my father, brother, sister, in-laws, my colleagues at work, employer, doctors, support group, friends not to mention my husband and kids. I love and appreciate you all. To other cancer patients, cancer may have begun the fight, but we shall be the ones to finish it…. ALUTA CONTINUA.

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