‘I make knitted boobs in memory of my mum’

 ‘I make knitted boobs in memory of my mum’
EUGINIA GATHONI

By EUGINIA GATHONI
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When she lost her mum to breast cancer, Nancy Githoitho’s way of coping was by offering support to breast cancer survivors and knitting boobs for them. The 39-year-old is the chief executive officer and founder of Limau Cancer Connection. She tells her story.

“‘When cancer gives you lemons, you make lemonade out of it’ is my absolute favourite quote when dealing with this monster called cancer.

My mum was diagnosed with stage 3b breast cancer in June 2016. The doctor who broke the devastating news to her wasn’t as empathetic, which made it feel like a death sentence.

When she broke the news to me via a call, I was in the middle of a presentation at my then-workplace in the US.

That night, my mum locked herself up in her room and cried all night. She felt helpless. I then suggested she goes for a second opinion and that’s when she left for Kijabe Hospital.

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One Dr Peter Bird was empathetic and confirmed our worst fears that it was indeed true. He encouraged her and was always there to give her all the support she needed.

My mum’s sister was also a cancer survivor, and she had opted to go the herbal way after undergoing a mastectomy.

I think that’s what informed my mum about her decision not to go for chemotherapy after the mastectomy. After the surgery, my mum went to recuperate at our home in Kiambu.

After two months she felt well enough to return to her plastic Tupperware business in Umoja estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

She was not prepared for the change in her life. People stared at her for having one boob as she had lost her balance.

She also lost a lot of customers because they feared that they would contract cancer just from buying her items.

Since I was based in the US, I had to quit my job as no employer would give me a five-month leave to come back home.

I also took this time to see my children, Ryan, 13 and Ethan, 10, who live with my ex-husband in Nairobi.

When I came to visit, I bought my mum a silicone breast prosthesis which was quite costly but she didn’t like it.

At one point, it slipped from her bra and fell into her bowl of soup and she frustratingly stated, ‘hii matiti sitaki tena (I don’t want this silicone breast prosthesis).’

I think that, coupled with carrying a backpack full of medicine all the time, was getting to her. She even sank into depression because of all the changes that had come with the diagnosis.

It was at this point that I knew I had to learn how to make washable, light and affordable prosthesis. I met Barbara, the founder of Knitted Knockers, who introduced me to a group of ladies who could knit in Rwanda.

My mum’s friend went to Rwanda to learn how to knit and came back and taught 15 women from a certain prayer group how to knit.

At the time, my mum had also learnt how to knit as well. It is then when I decided to start “Limau Cancer Connection” in 2017 and registered it as a community-based organisation (CBO) and an NGO as well.

We have so far taught many different groups how to knit, and we have managed to diagnose many women in their early stages of breast cancer – stage 1 and 2.

We also have support groups on Facebook which give access to nutritionists and counsellors.

My mum was happy to see how many women were making knitted boobs and she would recall how in the beginning after the mastectomy, she had to wear socks or roll up a shirt.

With my support group, we have impacted more than 5,000 women. We hope to offer free breast cancer screening services and mastectomy procedures to those who need it.

Just as I was thinking that my mum was becoming more stable and comfortable, especially with the knitted boob’s project, life took a sudden twist.

It was sometime in June 2017 when my mum insisted on seeing my children. Their father dropped them at my mother’s place in Umoja. My father was at our Kiambu home.

As the day progressed with my children, my mum started vomiting. She couldn’t breathe properly and she was coughing non-stop.

My children were frantic and the nanny had to seek help from a neighbour, who helped rush my mum to a nearby clinic.

Since the doctors didn’t have the proper equipment, there was little they could do to save her. Her last words on the call to me were, ‘I think am dying.’

Those words still echo in my ears. She passed away on June 26, 2017, exactly a year after her diagnosis.

I was heartbroken, in shock and felt sad wondering what I could have done to save my mother.

I was named Njeri – which means the daughter of a warrior – and that’s the memory I had of my mother, a real warrior. I quit my job again to give her a proper send-off.

After the burial, I made sure that my foundation was running smoothly and my commitment to help women with cancer grew.

I would go to places like the slums and villages just to spread awareness on breast cancer, and I would also donate the knitted boobs to women who were affected.

All that I did from my pocket. It’s been a challenge as at times I have had to sell my furniture to fund the foundation.

Some people usually donate the yarn to knit the boobs but breast cancer patients need a lot more support.

Many cancer patients have been blacklisted by the CRB because of debts incurred during treatment.

I am also an advocate for medical cannabis as I feel it is the safer option for cancer patients who are in pain. I don’t have an office in Nairobi due to a lack of funds, and it would ease the coordination burden.

I have gotten several nominations like the Zuri Awards and Dear Awards (Diaspora Awards), both in 2019.

I am also the Director at African Integrated Cancer Network, which is an umbrella body for organisations fighting cancer. In 2018, I organised “Limau Mashinani” in Umoja and Mathare.

I also executed the first cancer protest in March 2019 demanding that the Government declares cancer a national disaster. A total of 500 cancer patients showed up.

My dad is my biggest supporter and he helps out in the running of my foundation whenever am out of the country.

Life hasn’t been easy especially since we parted ways with the father of my children, and he decided to go back with them to Kenya. Sometimes getting to see them is difficult as he has full custody over them.

I greatly miss my mum and every time I help women, I hope that she is smiling down on me from heaven.

For now, I am trying to make ends meet as I work as the Sales and Marketing Director in a retirement home in San Francisco.

Website: www.limaucc.org; Facebook: Limau Cancer Connection

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