Source: Daily Nation
30 August 2011
A year ago, life was humming along nicely for the family of Julius Wagacha and Caroline Waithera. The couple had just welcomed a new member to the family. Their other children, Hollidah Wanjiru and Nelly Wanjiku, were 22 and 17 years respectively, therefore baby Mbugua was a pleasant surprise.
Instantly, he became the centre of attention for this close-knit family. Everybody wanted to cuddle the bundle of joy all the time, save for the time that he had to be breastfed, and no one else could have him except his mother.
Then double tragedy struck. The couple was diagnosed with cancer, only eight months apart. Indeed, the revelation that both had cancer robbed them of the joy they had known for the better part of their marriage of more than two decades. What is even more extraordinary is that the cancer attacked them in a similar manner and area — the eye.
A month before Mbugua was born, Julius noticed that a swelling was slowly forming around his eye. However, he did not give it much thought until he realised that it was getting bigger. Upon doctor’s orders, he underwent a biopsy, which revealed that the swelling around his right eye was a tumour.
“We did not understand what was going on, but since it was painless, I wasn’t really worried, even though I intended to have further tests done,” he says.
About four months after Mbugua was born, Julius’ wife, Caroline, developed a persistent headache. The pain was so intense that she decided to see a doctor.
On thorough observation, the doctor gave her news that she least expected — she had a growth behind her eye! That was last December, and she had yet to receive the worst news.
“The doctor prescribed pain killers, which did not do much for me, since they were mild because I was breastfeeding,” she says. Then in January, when I had a biopsy done, the doctors confirmed that the growth was cancerous,” explains the mother-of-three.
With this diagnosis, Julius’ tumour was promptly forgotten. The cancer was identified as nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The news was as shattering as it was surprising.
Caroline did not have the remotest idea how she would cope, particularly with her baby. But her doctor assured her that the condition was treatable and that she should not get worried.
She says it was amazing how she was able to take all that in her stride. Due to encouragement from her husband and children, who stood by her throughout that time, she never lost sleep over the matter. Her family’s support gave her the strength to cope with the illness.
Her type of cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, is the most common originating in the nasopharynx, the uppermost region of the throat. Its occurrence is prevalent in the regions of East Africa and Asia, mostly in males.
As an outpatient, the stay-at-home mother had to juggle between taking care of her family and treatment. Mbugua was only five months old when his mother underwent a course of six weeks of radiotherapy treatment and once-a-week chemotherapy sessions.
“When it all started, I was admitted at the Aga Khan University Hospital for four days,” she says, adding that she would return to the hospital every week for the chemotherapy course.
Back then, the Hospital was yet to open its Heart and Cancer Treatment Centre, which now offers both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She therefore received radiotherapy treatment at the MP Shah Hospital.
“It was not an easy time for me, but I thank God my family was supportive,” a teary-eyed Caroline says, adding that her oldest daughter, Hollidah, took over her role as mother to her little brother when she was going through the treatment.
But the family withheld the news of the illness from Nelly, a Form Three student.
The family routine changed to suit Caroline’s needs. In the company of her husband, she would check in at MP Shah Hospital by 7 am.
“Those sessions were short, something between 15-20 minutes, but the chemotherapy lasted longer, since I had to exhaust seven, or sometimes eight bottles of treatment through the drip. By the time I was done for the day, we would leave for home after 8pm,” she explains.
The side effects of the drugs were not kind.
“I constantly felt choked, could not swallow properly — even saliva — and felt nauseated all the time.”
Even as this was going on, the cost of treatment for her condition proved challenging for the family and they had to seek financial assistance from friends and family. They organised a fundraiser to settle the hospital bills she was quickly accumulating.
Caroline recalls how her mother-in-law would visit her every evening when she would return from the hospital. She says it was the strength of family that saw her through.
“From my experience, I know that your family will always stand by you during such times. Some friends were there for me, true, but others did not believe I would beat the cancer,” Caroline recalls.
She says there were times when her circle of friends would hear that she was ailing, prompting some of them to make hasty visits to “see for themselves.”
But she just ignored such sentiments because they only served to bring her down.
Throughout her illness, she kept the faith that she would be healed and that she would soon assume her full-time job as a homemaker. In May, much to her relief, the doctors said the cancer had gone into full remission.
Although the cancer was gone, it did not leave Caroline the way she had been. Her face is slightly disfigured, she lost hair near her temple, her body is weak, and she has black discolouration on her face. She may not look like her old radiant self, but she is not shaken. And although she speaks in low measured tones, her resilience is loud.
“I was told that with cancer one recovers with time. At first I could not take water and even swallowing food was a problem. But now I can drink water and I eat food with less difficulty,” she says with optimism.
Julius swelling worsens
Meanwhile, the area around Julius’ right eye kept swelling. But he ignored it, turning all his attention to his wife’s treatment. He wanted her to get well before he could even think about seeking a second opinion about his own eye.
“Besides, mine was just a swelling, while she was in great pain,” he says.
But as he kept postponing proper check up on his swelling, something told him it could be a serious condition and that it would be better if it was arrested early, bearing in mind the pain he saw his wife suffer.
“Although I had a biopsy earlier, the doctors could not find anything conclusive. So they sent samples of the tissue to the UK and I had to wait for results,” the 48-year-old fire fighter says.
So as Caroline was safely set on the path to full recovery, it was Julius’ turn to seek medical care. A couple of weeks ago it was confirmed that his tumour is, indeed, cancerous.
“I have an orbital tumour which is growing outside the socket of the eye and I need to go for an operation to remove the mass before I can undergo further treatment,” he explains Julius says his doctor has advised him to set aside between Sh2 and 4 million for the surgery at a private hospital, money that he does not have. The cost of the operation in India, according to his research on the Internet, in cheaper – about Sh600,000. However this is still too much money for his family. He is appealing to well wishers to come to his aid.
This couple’s case can be described as unique.
“Even the doctors we saw at the Nairobi Hospital were perplexed because we do not have any blood connection and we have suffered a similar condition that presented itself at about the same time,” says Julius.
Radiation oncologist Henry Abwao says the case of Caroline and Julius is second to none.I have not come across a couple with cancer in the same general area, neither have I seen it in literature.”
Dr Abwao is quick to add that theirs is a coincidental case, but very different, explaining that while Caroline’s cancer is the aggressive type, Julius has a slow-growing one. Also, the two types are not co-related. Julius has histiocytic sarcoma, an uncommon kind of cancer.
“Caroline’s case is a common cancer. I see several cases like hers every week, but Julius’ is quite rare,” he adds.
When Living visited the couple at their Mwimuto home in Kiambu, it was evident that the hard times envisaged in the marriage vows that couples exchange during their big day were not going to wear them down.
“We have had to face up to things as they come and we do not even know how we have managed. I guess it is in the way that we had to take care of each other,” Julius says, breaking into nervous laughter as he looks across the room at his wife.
Admittedly, they had their share of pity parties, which they say were promptly replaced with faith that things would look up for them.
Hollidah, a beautician, cannot hide her joy as she recalls the day her mother was declared cancer-free “since I had been forced to grow up immediately and juggle between school and taking care of everyone’s needs while my mum was undergoing treatment”.
“I have learnt that people suffering from cancer should take it positively and believe that they are going to get well,” she says.
Hollidah says she has had to sacrifice her social life until her family gets back to its normal routine. Nonetheless, she holds dear her family, which she describes as “the only possession I have”.
She would like to go out and have fun like her friends, but at the moment she cannot. She cannot bear the thought of having fun while her parents are unwell at home.
“Some of my friends have even given up on me and do not call me to hang out anymore because they know what my response will be.” This experience, too, has opened her eyes to who her real friends are.
And as they prepare to face the monster that has returned to haunt them — her father’s illness — Hollidah says the family is now better prepared after the experience with her mother’s case.”This time we have taken the news calmly and from mum’s situation, we are stronger and we believe dad will pull through,” she says.
Julius says that in the past year, the family has grown closer. Nelly appreciates the positive change that she has witnessed: “It has strengthened our faith in God.” Mbugua’s endless baby talk as the family poses for photographs gives away the sense of warmth and love that they share. They prove that the illness has made them stronger as a unit. Later, in a follow-up telephone conversation, Julius says that he puts on a brave face so as not to worry his family about his condition. “I am trusting that God will heal me the way He did my wife.”