What would you do if you were told you had only six months left to live?
This is the story of Catherine Wanjiru, who four years ago was declared a “write-off” by doctors after they discovered she had advanced leukaemia.
Leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.
“I knew I was dead after the diagnosis that day. It was traumatic,” says 32-year-old Wanjiru with a smile on her face.
But she thanks God for her husband, William Wanjohi, who assured her they would pull through despite doctors saying her case was hopeless.
It all started way back in high school in 1999, when she fell ill and sought medical help. The results indicated she had acute anaemia.
Wanjiru’s condition worsened in 2011 when she would wake up with joint pain, bleeding, coughing blood and fainting spells.
A doctor advised her to have a biopsy, which is an examination of tissue removed from a living body to determine the presence, cause or extent of a disease.
The mother of an eight-year-old girl was told she had leukaemia but that did not shock her immediately.
“I honestly didn’t know what leukaemia was. I thought it was advanced anaemia since I’d had it several times,” says Wanjiru with a hearty laugh.
She decided to call her brother and ask him about the condition under the pretext that it was “a friend” who was sick.
“It was then that it dawned on me I had cancer. I went into denial because knowing I had it meant I was dead,” she recalls.
She did not tell anyone about it, not even her husband, until 2012 when she went back to hospital.
“But this time, doctors told me I was looking at six months of life because the disease had advanced,” she narrates.
Wanjiru decided to start chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The effects of the medication took a toll on her; her hair fell off and she became weak.
Months went by and September came; the month she had been told she would die.
But she lived through it.
“When we got to October, I realised God had given me a bonus. The first week ended and we entered the second one and I celebrated my birthday.
“That was when I decided I was going to fight. I wasn’t going to let cancer kill me,” says an elated Wanjiru.
Her doctor then advised that the best thing to do was have a bone marrow transplant, which is only done in India or South Africa at a cost of about Sh3.5 million.
Her family organised a fundraiser but the outcome was not good as not even a quarter of the amount required was raised.
“I decided to be managed by the chemo and radiation, and did research on diet. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2012,” she says.
In her battle with cancer, Wanjiru has had more than 18 chemotherapy and 50 radiotherapy sessions, and 10 blood transfusions.
But her life was to take another painful twist when she started having migraines.
She was advised to go for an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) test, a procedure used to scan the body, two weeks ago, which revealed several brain tumours.
“I don’t regret, I don’t complain. I am okay and I’ve decided to live life to the fullest,” says the former tour operator who has a fighter’s spirit.
Wanjiru is now looking for Sh2 million for urgent treatment at the Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, India.
“I need a test called Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan that is not available in Kenya. It’s a scan done using an advanced machine that can tell if there are other tumours or cancer cells,” she says.
An Indian oncologist said not all tumours were malignant; maybe one or two, and could be treated by radiation, each through a tablet,” she explains.
She says doctors in Kenya had lost all hope because there were five growths – four in the brain and one in the scalp.
“Even if they say I won’t survive, I know I will go and come back. I will fight back,” she reiterates.
Wanjiru has organised a fundraiser for Saturday, February 7, to help raise the amount and calls on well-wishers to come and help her.
She is now an advocate at Hope and Courage International (HCI Unite), an organisation she started to create awareness on cancer.
In the meantime, she has learnt that no two days are the same and it is best to live one day at a time.
She adds that her family members have been very supportive.
Wanjiru’s advice to cancer patients is that they should not give up the fight and succumb to the disease.
“Don’t lose hope. I believe cancer is curable. I don’t believe cancer kills anyone; it is the stigma surrounding it that kills.”
According to the Nairobi Cancer Registry (2012) based at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, leukaemia is among the top cancers in Kenya affecting women, with 536 cases reported in that period.
Cancer is also the third highest killer disease in the country after infectious and cardiovascular diseases.
According to Nicholas Othieno-Abinya, a medical oncologist, there are different types of leukaemia and most do not have established causes.
Acute leukaemia, he says, is curable in a good percentage of patients through bone marrow transplants, but kills faster.
Chronic leukaemia, on the other hand, is hardly curable but has a higher prevalence, and one can live with it for years.
Prof Abinya, also head of Section of Haematology and Oncology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Nairobi, says blood cancer can be caused by exposure to radiation, atomic/nuclear accidents, bombs, exposure to radiation during treatment and in the workplace.
He adds that the disease can be caused by cancer medicines and drugs like benzene or chemicals in petrol industries.
Abinya notes that symptoms include bone marrow failure, shortage of blood and low platelet count, which results in bleeding from any part of the body.