Fighting breast cancer, a day at a time
Nora Njirani underwent a mastectomy early this year and is still undergoing chemotherapy treatment. She shares how cancer diagnosis changed her life plans.
When Nora Njirani, a research assistant and training coordinator at Amboseli Trust for Elephants felt pain under her left arm early this year, she knew that something was wrong and went for a check-up.
She opted to go for a mammogram and when the doctor told her to go for her results accompanied by someone close, Nora prepared herself for the worst.
“My instincts told me to expect bad news, so I was mentally prepared. It was discovered I had three lumps on my left breast,” she recalls.
Though she didn’t panic and has her faith firmly rooted in God, Nora says that this news brought about change in her life financially, socially as well as in her family.
“I had plans to build a home, but now here I was with such a diagnosis. Suddenly, everything had to be halted and I had to focus all my energy and finances into getting treatment,” Nora narrates.
Her doctor gave her two options: to either have a mastectomy with no chemotherapy treatment or have the lump removed and then undergo chemotherapy.
She consulted her sons and they came up with a decision having a mastectomy to avoid going for chemotherapy. Nora feared chemotherapy due to its side effects.
Chemotherapy involves using anti-cancer (cytotoxic) medicine to kill cancer cells. It’s usually used after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that have not been removed.
This is called adjuvant chemotherapy. In some cases, one may have chemotherapy before surgery, which is often used to shrink a large tumour. This is called neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy side effects depend on the drugs you receive. Common side effects include hair loss, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and an increased risk of developing an infection.
Rare side effects can include premature menopause, infertility (if premenopausal), damage to the heart and kidneys, nerve damage, and, very rarely, blood cell cancer.
Nora underwent the operation on May 7, this year and 14 lymph nodes were removed of which one of them had cancer.
“The doctor advised I undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer, something that I was avoiding from the beginning.
I had to agree since I very much wanted to live and take care of my sons. To date, I’m still taking a day at a time,” says Nora.
Nora admits the cancer diagnosis has made her realise the love that her sons have for her, something which she didn’t know when she was living a healthy life.
They have stood with her up to date and though Nora is keeping strong, she admits that her sons are yet to come to terms with it.
“My two sons were so depressed when we got the news. I had to comfort them though I was the sick one. But I could not hide such a diagnosis from them,” she says.
With the effects of chemotherapy treatment, her health has not been the same again, which has affected her work due to fatigue.
She also had to cut her hair. It is also difficult for her to concentrate and remember things.
She is supposed to undergo eight sessions of chemotherapy. So far, she has gone for six rounds.
“What made me strong is receiving support and encouragement from my sons, colleagues, as well as few friends.
I can’t complain about diet, because I eat everything apart from acidic food.
When I had mastectomy, I stopped doing my exercises, I can’t drive, I can’t wash my clothes,” narrates the single mother of two sons.
One of the advices that she received during the treatment process is to follow the directions given by her oncologists and complete taking the dose of all prescribed drugs.
It is this support and prayers from family and her employer who assists in paying chemotherapy and also tolerate her whenever she gets sick, that has made her stand strong and not be depressed about her condition.
Unlike many women who always hide such a disease, Nora believes that it is important for people to know how to communicate this message to their friends and family as that can assist to have a healthy mind and also get assistance when in need.
“Breaking the news that you have cancer might be tough, but it’s important to have close people to assist you walk the journey.
One can first start with the basic facts about your diagnosis and the treatment options available and after that, let the conservations flow naturally.
Don’t give them too much information that you might not know about yet,” she says.
It is also important to tell your children and find ways of communicating this to them based on their age.
If a letter or email is easier for you, you can do so and discuss with them later.
Other people use private groups on social media where they find it easier to update people on their status and progress.
But ensure that your children are receiving counselling as the news can affect their mental health.
“Make sure you are clear about who they can tell if you don’t want everyone to know,” she says.
According to nutritionist Kepha Nanyumba, unhealthy lifestyle is one of the modifiable risk factors for the development of breast cancer.
“Increase foods that are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals such as fruits and green leafy vegetables.
Eat plenty of foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acid such as fish, sardines, among others.
Avoid foods rich in saturated fats such as red meat, French fries and butter. Avoid or cut on alcohol,” he recommends as part of diet adjustment for people with breast cancer.
In addition, Kepha advises that it is important for women to maintain weight within the normal range to reduce the risk of breast cancer.