So October was here and the “pink ribbon parade” was underway, there was no way I was going to miss out on the free breast exams that were being offered nearly everywhere in Nairobi.
So on Tuesday, October 6, 2015, as I was heading to work, I passed by Ruaraka Uhai Neema Hospital for my first routine and professional breast exam. I made sure to take a selfie #getyourselfchecked #breastcancerawareness to encourage my friends on whatsapp, facebook, twitter and instagram to join the band wagon after all – it is a healthy choice to have check-ups, right! I was greeted with a smile, I filled in a registration form, I asked a few questions and sat down to wait for the nurse or doctor that would see me and confirm my suspicions, that my breasts and I were just fine; nothing to worry about.
You know that look the doctor gets when they are suspicious of a test result – squinted eyes, slight tilt of the head, concentrated thoughtfulness – well my ‘examiner’ had THIS look. So I asked him if there was a problem. He proceeded to inquire about my menstrual cycle then said “Well I noticed something in your left breast, but because you’re so close to getting your period, you may need to come in for another breast exam”.
Now, there is no worse feeling – or so I thought – than getting informed that you have lumps in your breasts, which cannot be defined as normal fibrous breast tissue but I also have to wait two weeks before I can know for sure. I started panicking, called my mother, told a few friends, shared it on whatsapp with some groups…this was encouraging and comforting but for the next two weeks the thought of cancer did not leave my mind.
After my said menses, I did my own self exam in the house to see if the lumps had disappeared. Unluckily or rather unfortunately the lumps were still present. I went for my second breast exam as earlier directed by the doctor and unfortunately the lumps were still there and I needed to go have a scan/ultra-sound done to determine what they were. More sad news came in I had not one lump but two! Oh Lord Jesus, why me, I cried, I prayed, I contemplated a sick and painful future, I sought comfort from friends and prayed some more. At the clinic where I got the scan done, I was informed I needed to get an FNA (Fine Needle Assessment) which according to the doctor is more of a minimally invasive biopsy of the lumps; now this is where things got confusingly hectic.
“Don’t get a biopsy, it will make things worse”,
“Just go see a few other doctors for consultations (which I did)”,
“Go for the biopsy, it is better to know right now than to wait”,
“Call this person and ask”,
“There is a clinic in Kijabe that is the best at this”,
“I had lumps in my breasts and they were just cysts, no cancer”
“You are in my prayers; you will be okay, take heart”
Now all these words, mostly of encouragement, from friends and family were good, but did they or could they really comprehend what I was going through? I had another two days to wait before going to the Mater Hospital to have the biopsy done and one more day between the biopsy and the results. Since I have an aunt working at the Mater hospital, I called her up and asked about pricing (which was significantly high for just a single test, between Ksh. 4,000-7,000), thank heavens for the subsidized rates for the month, I paid Ksh. 2,600. I kept assuring myself that I was cancer free, I have been eating healthy after all; false hopes I assume.
The experience of getting the sample of the lumps was painful. I remember at some point feeling so much pain that I threw up. After the extractions I held my breast tight one would think I was breastfeeding. The result day came and before I went for the results my aunt broke the news to me, it was negative of any cancer cells. The doubting Thomas in me could not have let me be satisfied with this information, so I went there myself to pick up the results. Let me say that I am among the lucky who got a cancer free diagnosis. The lumps were non- cancerous and according to the doctor they are harmless and there was no need for me to have them removed as this would cost me a significant sum of money and even better news was that they will shrink with time. To say this was the best news of the year is an understatement and an injustice to the relief that washed over me.
A lot of women go through this process and unfortunately have to live the reality that their entire life has changed. There is still too much information that is unknown to the public on matters of cancer. Is one month in a year for sensitization really enough? Are free services for breast exams enough? Do hospitals need to consider offering free comprehensive breast cancer screening? How many women are actually taking up these free check-ups anyway? Are there alternative options to biopsy, chemotherapy, radiation? The simplest and quite effective step every woman, man as well, can take is to learn their breasts. Learn what they feel like throughout the month, what is normal with your breasts and what is not, look at them in the mirror and get acquainted with how they look or sit on your chest, perform a self breast exam while showering or lying down it takes less than 2 minutes.
Do not wait until October.