Survivors scale Mt Kenya for cancer recovery awareness
Evelyn Makena @evemake_g
Early one Sunday afternoon this September, Selesa Atieno, 43, approached Mount Kenya via the Sirimon Gate.
In the next four days, she would battle nausea, shortness of breath and fatigue as she attempted to make the big ascent to Africa’s second highest mountain.
Together with a group of 12 cancer survivors and three caregivers, Selesa, a breast cancer survivor was determined to overcome every obstacle and reach the peak.
Every step she took along the narrow tracks winding up steep cliffs, reminded her of her journey with chemotherapy. Each step was tough and required great mental resolve.
She had to remind herself not to give up, but to keep going. Back in March 2013, Selesa was diagnosed with breast cancer stage 3B (where despite the size of the tumour, cancer has invaded the chest wall or breast skin with evidence of swelling, inflammation, or ulcers).
A lump she had noticed on her left breast few months prior turned out to be malignant.
“My world crashed. I remember fantasising about the possibility of being shot and killed in post-election chaos, but this never happened,” she says.
The mother of four underwent a mastectomy the same month and started chemotherapy.
The side effects of chemotherapy took a huge toll on her body at some point necessitating hospitalisation after she vomited and passed out.
With eight cycles of chemotherapy, 16 cycles of radiotherapy and five years of hormone therapy behind her, Selesa was declared cancer free in 2018.
Like most cancer survivors, her journey of recovery has been characterised with limitations, both external and self-imposed.
“I have to avoid certain foods such as red-meat. As a survivor you are mostly told what you can’t do, not what you can.
There is also the nagging feeling of self-doubt every time I attempt to make a big step,” she says.
But here she was, trekking past varied terrain of montane forests, open grasslands, pristine rivers and high moorlands under freezing temperatures to take a challenge she hoped would help change perceptions about cancer.
On the fourth day, Selesa managed to reach the Lenana summit, in what proved to be a great physical and psychological adventure.
“Reaching that summit reminded me nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it,” she reminisces.
Sense of accomplishment
This endeavor by the group of 15 people dubbed Kilele Challenge, was the initiative of Benda Kithaka, a cancer advocate and communications specialist.
Benda was inspired to start the challenge after realising the challenges that cancer survivors undergo.
For over eight years, Benda extensively interacted with patients and survivors while working with Women 4 Cancer, an NGO she co-founded to address early detection, treatment and stigma associated with cervical cancer
“I found out that most cancer survivors live a low quality of life even after battling and defeating the disease,” she says.
Survivors battle deep emotional and physical scars that leave many questioning the reason for their existence.
Others constantly battle the fear of cancer recurring while facing stigma from both society and themselves.
Some are written off by friends and family for fear that they will be a burden.
All these factors combined, Benda says, make the journey of cancer survivors difficult to cope with.
“I thought this initiative could help survivors improve their mental wellbeing, physical fitness and help them in finding purpose.
Kilele Challenge aimed at demonstrating that cancer survivors are equally capable and that cancer is not a death sentence,” she says.
It is in last year as she was emerging from depression, following the death of a dear friend who had succumbed to cancer, that Benda decided to come up with the initiative.
In January this year, she mobilised several cancer survivors with many drawn from informal settlements in Nairobi to take part in the challenge.
The survivors would have to undergo nine months of rigorous training to prepare for the ultimate dare of climbing Mount Kenya.
Participants were enrolled in a gym for three months since January. Subsequent hikes at Karura Forest, Arboretum, Mount Longonot, Elephant Hills, Ngong Hills helped them build their mental and physical stamina before climbing Mount Kenya.
To actualise the vision of Kilele Challenge, Benda relied on her own funds, donations from friends and contributions from members.
The journey of nine months finally culminated in scaling the heights of Mount Kenya and bringing a change of mindset.
“After going up the mountain, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Now I know with determination everything is possible,” says Jane Mwihaki, an anal cancer survivor who took part in the challenge.
When the 54-year-old first heard about the Kilele Challenge earlier this year, she never thought it was something she would consider.
She was both not mentally and physically ready for such a huge challenge. Mwihaki, a mother of three and a grandmother of five was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2016.
She initially developed hemorrhoids that were removed through an operation in March.
After the operation, she developed a wound that turned out septic and for six months she was in and out of hospital.
Further tests revealed that she had anal cancer stage three. Mwihaki underwent chemotherapy and 33 sessions of radiotherapy.
She was declared cancer free, but the effects of the treatment still linger.
“Radiotherapy ended up affecting the lower part of my spine causing my legs to go numb especially when it is very cold,” she says. Participating in Kilele challenge has taught her to never limit herself.
Another participant Joan Wangari compares the experience to receiving a fresh lease of life.
The 36 year old was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011 and completed treatment in 2014. A year after the treatment, she got pregnant with her second baby who turned four this year.
“There is life after cancer. I encourage people diagnosed with cancer to know that they can achieve much more even after the illness. This encounter has given me more will to live and I am grateful for every day,” says the mother of two.
Reflecting on the encounter, Benda says that Kilele Challenge is a lesson to everybody that cancer survivors are not helpless and they have a lot to offer.