KARIOBANGI, Kenya—On a rainy afternoon in the Kariobangi slums near the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Caroline Achieng’ tries to keep herself warm in her house made of iron sheets.
The 40-year-old mother of six has breast cancer and says that the chemotherapy she is undergoing has made her weak and prone to cold. She used to sell fish in the slums but can’t do it anymore.
Achieng’ says her mother helps support her, but besides that, she has had very little family support since her husband died nine years ago. As she was her late husband’s second wife, her brother-in-law refused to recognize her entitlement to inheritance, and she was thrown out of their rural home in Siaya County.
“My in-laws hate me and won’t assist me. One of them recently called me to say that I should not be lied to that cancer can be healed; they don’t have money to waste on my treatment but only to cater for my funeral expenses,” she said. “I only find refuge in my friends and children, who encourage me that one day I will be OK.”
For many women living with breast cancer in Kenya, this is a silent fight, as they often face the worst forms of stigma. For this reason, Nancy Githoitho started the nonprofit Limau Cancer Connection, which brings together more than 3,000 cancer survivors to share words of encouragement and pool resources to help them access treatment.
Limau is a Swahili word for lemon; the women take the popular saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” as their inspiration.
Githoitho lost her mother last year to breast cancer. Before she died, she used to sell plastic items at a small kiosk in Nairobi’s Umoja Phase 2 estate. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she lost customers, as people didn’t want to be associated with her, thinking they might also contract the disease.
Today, Githoitho uses the kiosk as a meeting point for people living with cancer. They come together to knit prostheses for breast cancer survivors who have undergone a mastectomy. The women give out the prostheses for free to survivors to encourage them to press on in their fight against cancer, as well as to raise awareness among members of the community more broadly.
Compared to commercial silicon prostheses, the ones that the women are knitting are more comfortable, the women say.
“The commercial prostheses are uncomfortable, especially in warm and hot weather because it’s slippery, heavy, and can burst, causing the gel to pour onto the wound on the removed breast,” Githoitho said.
At first, Githoitho says, she had the kiosk painted pink, but then she realized that not all cancer awareness campaigns are represented by that color. Now, she is being assisted by two volunteers to repaint the kiosk in different colors representing different types of cancer. The volunteers, Edwin Ngera and Stephen Orato, also lost their mother to breast cancer last year, and say that after her passing, their house was empty.
“Since we know what it feels like to lose a loved one to cancer, we decided to use our talent in art to bring a smile to the faces of those who have lost their loved ones by painting their houses with their favorite colors, shapes, or images,” Orato said. “If you are poor, cancer is a death sentence, and if you are rich, it is a gateway to poverty.”
Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer among women in Kenya, with 50 percent being among women under 50 years of age, according to a report by global biotech company Roche. The report states that approximately 4,500 patients are diagnosed with the disease and 2,000 patients lose their lives to it annually.
Dr. Ronald Wasike, a breast cancer oncologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi, agrees that breast cancer is the most common cancer in Kenya. To change this, Wasike recommends that public health education should be a priority.
“People need to be made aware because if you tell people to go for screening, they can’t, unless they are aware of why they should. This should be done in all public places, including churches, schools, hospitals, and many other places,” Wasike said.
Many legislators in Kenya, among them nominated senator Dr. Isaac Mwaura, who sits on the Kenyan Senate Assembly, say that cancer should be declared a national disaster.
“I just came from having a conversation with a fellow member of parliament who has had cancer and has gone public about it. The doctor who treats him says that he has treated 63 members of parliament, but people don’t want to talk about it,” Mwaura said. “We need the government of Kenya to treat cancer as a national disaster.”
Support and Hope
Millicent Kagonga is doing her best to support women with breast cancer. She is also a survivor of cervical cancer and says that cancer brought on the worst period in her life.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer, no one at home wanted to associate with me. By then, I was living here in Nairobi with my husband, and things went south when I couldn’t perform my matrimonial duties. He left me and got another woman,” Kagonga said.
She later took refuge in a church after she was thrown out of her mother’s matrimonial home, since her mother’s husband was not her biological father. At the church, she was still unable to find acceptance.
“Because of the cancer, I would have a pungent smell, and based on this, the pastor at our church here in Nairobi threw me out, adding that they didn’t need members who were dying,” Kagonga said between sobs.
From her experience, Kagonga has learned how to be strong and stand up to the stigma. Now she helps the women in her neighborhood and in the Limau Cancer Connection be the same.
The women at the Limau Cancer Connection are currently raising money and planning to visit 40 out of the 47 counties in Kenya from Nov. 10 to Dec. 20. They will teach women how to knit prosthetic breasts and donate the ones they have already made to cancer survivors.