Loise Mawira, a strong young woman, is going about her business selling high end shoes and dresses at Capital Centre when I catch up with her. Although her world turned upside down back in 2014, after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, she has since fought for her life and says she wanted to put the sickness behind her and focus on being happy.
Lucky for her, Nairobi West Hospital, located near her workplace, has opened a cancer-center kitted with a new technology radiotherapy machine, the First Varian Halcyon treatment center in Kenya.
Unlike traditional chemotherapy, the machines are faster, quieter and more comfortable for patients.
According to Loise, the alternative; trips to India, would have been too expensive for her family.
Because of family history, Loise used to do regular checkups. She also noticed a swelling near her armpit but was advised that it could be hormonal. She was put under medication and the swelling shrunk. It was the persistent pain from the swelling that had her seek a second opinion. She was diagnosed with stage two cancer of the right breast. This was news that she did not expect.
“When I got the diagnosis, it was so shocking at first I thought the doctor was pranking me! I hoped they’d smile and say ‘April Fools’).”
Her world came crumbling down.
Masectomy, partner fleeing
Despite the doctor recommending for the immediate removal of her right breast, Loise was not ready to do it and was in total denial. She sought opinions from other hospitals and after two months of denial, decided it was time to start her medical journey.
“As a single Mom with a partner who opted out once he found out I had cancer, after three years of dating and living together, it was never easy – and I tried hard not to be bitter. But it wasn’t his betrayal that kept me up at night. It was the thought of my kids. I tried keeping the news from my son and daughter, who was then in class 8, but was heartbroken to find out that the kids had overheard about my condition through relatives. My daughter was distraught, and failed her KCSE. My son was too young to know what was going on.”
“I looked at my kids, cried to God, but knew that I had to fight for them. They needed me and they were my motivation to battle this disease. I had support from friends and my extended family, although my immediate family wasn’t so supportive. I have learned to forgive them too.”
After four chemotherapy sessions, Loise was overjoyed as the the lump had shrunk so much, she was convinced that the cancer was gone thought the cancer was gone.
This joy was short-lived. Four months after her last check up, she realized a swelling similar to what she had previously experienced under her left arm.
“Cancer is super expensive, not just emotionally but financially! Friends and relatives did fundraisers, my initial medical cover got to its limit forcing me to renew it with half my salary. With a kid in high school, and another in primary school, I was financially drained.
“At some point your relatives do not want to hear much from you. They may not even pick your call! I was even advised to use herbal medication instead of what the doctors had prescribed. If not for the Halycon technology, I would probably be dead today.” Ms Mawira said.
According to Dr Prakash Saini, the clinical coordinator of the Oncology department at Nairobi West hospital, “the Halcyon radiotherapy machine, (which resembles MRI scanners), takes just half an hour to power up, uses image guidance to accurately target tumors which means that it reduces high doses of radiation for the patient since they spend less than two minutes inside.”
He added that since the machine targets the precise location of the tumor and zeros in it, there is less likelihood that a patients’ other organs will be affected.
Milder side effetcs
Side effects of treatment are also far milder compared to with older machines, and the Halcyon’s are far more efficient, taking less time and fewer steps to deliver a dose of radiation targeting cancerous cells.
It is hoped that these machines, and the centralisation of cancer treatment at Nairobi West Hospital, will improve efficiency of the cancer treatment in the country as well as patient experience.
The Head of Operations at the hospital, Ms. Tina Saini, confirmed that the hospital would offer services at the same rates as other facilities with no hidden costs, in spite of their importation of these superior cancer battling machines.
No extra cost
“Our Halcyon machine is the only one of its kind in East, Central and West Africa,” Tina Saini says, “and we brought it in with the singular idea of saving Kenyans with cancer the cost of flying to India to get treatment, not to mention the attendant costs of accommodation (for the patient and their loved ones).”
Halcyon features a streamlined workflow that only requires nine steps from the start-to-the-end of treatment compared to up to more than 30 steps with older technologies, which for patients like Loise Mawira, left them wasted and exhausted.
World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2018 said that 47,887 Kenyans get cancer every year and 32,987 die from the disease.
The most common is breast cancer with 5,985 women diagnosed every year, compared to 2,864 prostate cases in men.
The report further showed that oesophagus cancer has become the top killer in Kenya, claiming 4,354 lives every year and overtaking prostrate, stomach, cervix and breast cancer fatalities.
Globally, most people die from lung cancer, which is linked to smoking, followed by colorectal, liver and breast types.
There is a poem called ‘Spontaneous Remission’ (by Claudia Emerson) that begins:
‘In the rare example, it disappears/ a girl’s leukemia gone/ when she awakes/ a woman’s tumor dissolved in her breast, after heat consumes her for two full days …’
But miracles are rare when it comes to things like cancer, they are mirages even when on prayer.
Instead of miracles, we have modern day panaceas to cancer like MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging – of which Halcyon is forefront.
“Cancer is real and can hit anyone!” says Loise Mawira. “When around someone suffering from the disease, what they need is your encouragement and support, both emotionally and financially. It’s tough, but can be battled and overpowered, especially if we embrace new tech like the Halcyon machine.”