29 January 2018

Uganda: Selfless Nakigudde Helping Women to Overcome Cancer

What started as a small, ignorable lump in one of her breasts left her permanently scarred and changed the course of her life.

But in a twist of fate, it also gave her a new lease on life that led her to support others who walk the path she treaded almost 16 years ago.

GERTRUDE NAKIGUDDE a breast cancer survivor, a co-founder and chief executive officer of Uganda Women's Cancer Support Organization (UWOCASO), shared her story with Prisca Baike.

When she thought the worst was over, Nakigudde got the shock of her life; the lump that had been removed from her breast was cancerous. Her breast had to be cut off!

She had only gone back to hospital to dress a wound following the removal of a lump that she had knowingly lived with for a long time.

"I used to feel the lump but it was painless. It kept growing. I decided to have it removed when it started hurting," says Nakigudde, adding that the thought that the lump could be cancerous had never crossed her mind. So, it came as a shock when she was told she had cancer.

"Of course I caused a huge scene at the hospital. I was inconsolable. No one knew what to tell me. I couldn't imagine living without a breast. Besides, I was staring at death," recalls Nakigudde.

She also recalls spending her entire savings on running several tests. She finally had the mastectomy at Kibuli hospital before she was referred to Mulago hospital for chemotherapy and follow-up treatment.

Her family members were dazed and too scared to accompany her to hospital. After spending two weeks in the queue to see the only oncologist who was at the then, almost-defunct, overpopulated yet understaffed cancer institute, she managed to get her first dose of chemotherapy.

"I fainted in the taxi on my way back home," narrates Nakigudde.

After this incident, her family, friends, workmates and employers realized how serious the issue was and accorded her all the support she needed to go through all the six chemotherapy cycles.

Although she did not have insurance, she was lucky her employers paid for her chemotherapy drugs. Almost a year later, she completed chemotherapy and started the hormonal treatment, which entails taking a single pill daily for five years. It is upon the completion of this treatment that one can be declared cancer-free.

Although she had been diagnosed with an aggressive type of breast cancer which has a very low survival rate, Nakigudde's positive outlook on her situation and her strict adherence to treatment saw her get declared cancer-free.

Before starting chemotherapy, the young and childless Nakigudde had been told about the effects of chemotherapy on one's fertility and the effects of the hormonal drugs on the children if one is lucky to conceive at all.

"I was told that I might have children with Down syndrome because of the hormonal treatment," says Nakigudde. "I actually had my son while undergoing the hormonal treatment. He is a brilliant twelve-year-old boy who has never repeated a class. He is my miracle baby."

REACHING OUT TO OTHERS

In 2004, while still undergoing treatment, Nakigudde along with other cancer patients - some of them have since passed on - started a support group to see each other through that trying time.

The group was later registered in 2007 under the name Uganda Women's Cancer Support Organization (UWOCASO). Its broad objective is to create awareness among the general population and women in particular, about breast and cervical cancer.

"I had to give up on my accounting profession in order to help others. So many cancer patients are abandoned by their families. If my family hadn't supported me, I would not have made it," says Nakigudde.

Today, the organization has over 100 members who are cancer survivors reaching out to both women and men to sensitize them about cancer and supporting those living with it. The major challenge, however, remains funding.

"Government is not prioritizing cancer at all yet it is an expensive disease to treat," says Nakigudde.

She advises women to get in the habit of breast self-examination, routine screening and presenting early for treatment.

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