26 February 2013

Uganda: Woman's Story of Loss, Struggle and Triumph

Josephine Bamuwamye's story is that of a life of loss, struggle and final triumph.

She was widowed, had her breast cut off and uterus removed. This mother of five and retired midwife of Pumwani Maternity hospital in Kenya realized she might be having breast cancer when her left breast grew at a tremendously fast rate compared to the right breast.

The initial self-examination tests left her with the impression that she might be having cancer with the evidence of the lump in her breast. Nevertheless, she silently killed off thoughts of probable cancer until she could not bear the marked difference in the breast sizes. She confided in her best friend, also a midwife at the hospital. It was February 2000.

"My friend felt the lump in my breast but did not want to imagine that I had breast cancer because to her, it meant a death sentence. She told me I was ok," Bamuwamye recalls.

She lived off that encouragement but with some voices telling her to consult a witch-doctor to abet the curse; others brought her the gospel of Jesus heals packaged with intensive prayer and yet others took on her situation as food for gossip. But she can never forget a 20-year-old prophet who prayed for her.

"He prayed while touching my breast and kept saying the lump is moving and when we came to the end, he said that it had disappeared," she says. "But I still felt it and this is when I decided to visit my neighbour in the hospital staff quarters who agreed to go with me for authentic medical tests."

Meanwhile, Bamuwamye lived off Chinese medicine that cost her Ksh 500 (Shs 15,000) per week, without improvement. Then came the first tests at City Council hospital in Kenya that prepared her for the worst announcement of her life.

"Do not waste time. Go to Kenyatta hospital for immediate advanced tests," the doctor said. She harkened to the call.

At Kenyatta hospital, Bamuwamye and her neighbour had a breast fine needle aspiration (removal of some fluid or cells from a breast lesion or cyst with a fine needle similar to a blood sample needle to help determine the nature or diagnosis of the lesion and to plan treatment if necessary) and were told to collect their results a month later.

Upon return, she noticed a difference between the packaging of her results and those of her neighbour. Hers were enveloped while those of the neighbour weren't. Before the results were presented to either, they were counselled. Her neighbour, being the first in the room came out excited upon receiving the good news that she was ok.

It gave Bamuwamye a sense of false hope and she went in confident. However, her exit was no more than tears, pensiveness and shock - she had breast cancer! It was April 2000.

Two weeks down the road, she was operated on and her left breast was cut off. She was discharged two days later with a discharge tube running throughout the left side of her body.

More medication

To ensure total recovery, the oncologists advised Bamuwamye to undertake chemotherapy every week for three weeks which she did bringing forth undesirable effects.

"All my hair was cut off, my nails and tongue darkened and I became very frail. This is how I attended my first born's graduation from Day Star University," she recalls.

Then for 25 days, she underwent radiation and followed this up with monthly checkups. After two years, her doctors advised her to go for a scan of her abdomen and chest in order to establish that the cancer had not spread. She was in for yet another shock; her uterus was endangered and had to undergo total hysterectomy (removal of the uterus).

Now 63 years old, Bamuwamye has beat the odds of living with one breast and no uterus since she was 50 years. She wears special bras available at Mulago hospital and the Uganda Women Cancer Support Organization (UWCSO) in Ntinda.

Changed lifestyle, new priorities

Her diet now consists of less meat and eggs but more of vegetables and water because of her low body immunity.

As a volunteer of UWSCO, she is involved in counselling and advising women to go for regular breast checks. During her free time, she visits the sick and prays for them.

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