Capital FM (Nairobi)

9 January 2013

Kenya: Cancer Survivors Get Breast Prosthesis

Nairobi — It feels as though I'm holding a cold cut of meat. There is nothing remarkable about it to me but to the over 30 women who have received it, it symbolises a return to normalcy.

"Being a young lady I can't just walk on the streets without one breast. It's good that KENCA has supported us with that because it's very expensive. Many people cannot afford it," Sophia Fareed Bule, a 27 year old undergoing treatment for breast cancer says.

KENCA is the Kenya Cancer Association and today they are donating breast prosthesis to women who have lost one or both breasts to the disease.

It is the culmination of an effort that began in October when more than 20 women had their heads shaved in support of women battling cancer.

The proceeds from their hair that was auctioned to well wishers, have been used to buy artificial breasts as the Vice Chairperson of the Association, David Makumi, explains.

"People who have had cancer have used most of their money in chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and by the time they are done with treatment, they have no more money for rehabilitation."

Breast prosthesis cost anything between Sh12,000 and Sh15,000 making them out of reach for a good number of breast cancer survivors as indicated by Sophia; a state of affairs Makumi sees as unfortunate given they assist recovery.

"Rehabilitation is an area of cancer treatment that people don't pay attention to which is really sad because prosthesis are not items of luxury or fashion. They are rehabilitation items."

"When soldiers lose their limbs in battle, don't they get fitted with prosthetics? They are essential for a return to normal life."

When she first felt a lump in her left breast and sought her family's opinion, she was told it was most likely a milk clot.

"It was my first born so my relatives would ask me, 'Sophia you don't know how to breast feed your baby well?"

"I've gone to school and that explanation just didn't sit right with me so I went for a check up."

Sophia was diagnosed with breast cancer just as her daughter entered her seventh month of life.

"People would tell me, 'Sophia do you know that you're dying soon?' You can imagine and these are your relatives in some instances."

"At first I cried because you have to let it out. But now I don't fear because everything that happens to a person, God has planned it to be."

A week later she had her right breast cut out.

"The doctors told me it was best to remove the whole thing. So I opted to let the whole thing go. I want to be healthy. Why should I have two breasts and I'm not healthy?"

If you met Sophia on the street, there would be no tell tale signs that cancer treatment has taken a toll on her body.

By their nature, the buibui she has on is free flowing and so does not cling to her form. It is therefore not easy to spot any difference between her breasts. In accordance with her faith, she has covered her head with a scarf revealing only a beaming face and so there is no way to tell her hair has fallen out.

"It's all about courage and eating healthy because chemotherapy is terrible. Without that you'll feel sorry for yourself."

Lucy Mutugi carries her prosthetics in a plastic bag as she chats easily with one of the KENCA volunteers. Behind them a group of women have lined up behind a grey Honda waiting their turn to fit their newly acquired artificial breasts.

"I feel so guilty," I hear the KENCA volunteer say as she looks at a cancer patient and prosthetic beneficiary barely able to take a step forward without the support of a stick, "I told her husband if she didn't come today we'd give away her prosthetic. I had no idea she was so sick."

The volunteer turns to me and looking at the microphone in my hands says, "Do you want a scoop?"

The scoop is Lucy who lost both her breasts to cancer, "I was diagnosed with cancer in January 2009."

"One of the breasts is the one which was appearing sick. But when I went to the doctor he said the other breast was also showing some signs and he indicated that I was to lose the two of them at the same time."

The drastic measures were taken on account of Lucy's hesitance to visit a healthcare provider immediately she started to experience pain in one of her breasts.

"I used to get very sharp pain and I would ignore. Then suddenly I developed high fever and my breast was swollen and stiff. That was when I decided to go and see the doctor."

The diagnosis and treatment plan were not anything close to what Lucy was expecting, "I think that was one of the most traumatising things. Breasts are one of the most important organs to a woman so I felt like I'd lost the most important part of my body. It was very difficult to learn to live without the breasts."

It was so difficult in fact, that Lucy was willing to do just about anything to appear 'normal', "The dignity of a woman is having breasts. You are able to walk upright. Most breast cancer survivors use all manner of things: sponges, pieces of cloth, stockings just to try and have their chests look like that of a woman. So I am so happy that today I am walking home with two prosthesis."

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