When Eunice Mmbalasi’s seven-year-old daughter, Shantel Nahongo, fell ill in 2017, she immediately took her to hospital. The left side of the girl’s aching tummy was swollen, and she could not seem to stop vomiting. Concerned, her mother took her to Mbagathi District Hospital, where she was informed her daughter had ulcers. Relieved, she bought the medicine that had been prescribed and mother and daughter returned home.
But even after taking the medicine religiously, there was no change. Her previously active and lively daughter had not only become dull and withdrawn, she had also lost a lot of weight since she was no longer eating. She had also become very pale. Some of her friends and neighbours back home in Bungoma County advised Ms Mmbalasi to consult a witchdoctor. Ms Mmbalasi took her daughter back to Mbagathi. This time round, a CT scan was done, which revealed a mass in the left side of her abdomen. Surgery was recommended.
Through a friend’s advice, she sought a second opinion, and ended up at AIC Kijabe Hospital. “On our first visit, tests revealed Shantel did not have enough blood, hence the paleness,” she recounts.
A biopsy would follow, which would reveal that Shantel had non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that develops in the lymphatic system. She learnt the disease had progressed to Stage 3. “I was shocked and scared — I had never heard of a child with cancer,” she says. It took continuous counselling to help her accept the diagnosis and also understand what to expect.
But news that her daughter had cancer was just the beginning of a long and arduous journey that would see her husband lose his job.
“We needed to make frequent trips to hospital, and sometimes, my husband would accompany her. One day, he was sacked,” she says.
Her husband’s employer had become impatient with his frequent absence from work.
Cancer can be financially draining especially if one does not have medical cover, but somehow, this family managed to get the money required for their daughter to go through treatment, which she did last year. Many other families are not so lucky.
Childhood cancer, says Dr Sarah Muma, a paediatric oncologist, has a huge toll on families.
“In many cases, during the first and second hospital visit, both parents accompany their child to hospital, but on the third and subsequent visits, one parent, mostly the mother, is the one that brings the child to hospital. When you ask why her husband no longer accompanies her, she will give excuses until she eventually reveals that she and her husband separated — some marriages do not survive this process. It is a difficult process,” says Dr Muma.
Unlike what is commonly believed, cancer, especially paediatric cancer, is curable. “There is ignorance surrounding cancer, for instance, many believe that children don’t get cancer, or that it is rare among children. Such ignorance is often what leads to late diagnosis,” explains Dr Muma.
Most of her patients seek treatment when the disease has progressed to Stage 2 or Stage 3, sometimes Stage 4.
Many children also complete treatment successfully.
Geoffrey Nyausi’s story
In 2017, Geoffrey Nyausi’s son, Peter Nyakoe, then two years old, began to experience difficulty passing stool. There was a swelling around his son’s anal region. Besides this, the boy had taken to developing high fever. He also was not eating. Concerned, he and his wife took him to Kisii Level 6 hospital.
“I didn’t think his illness was serious,” says Mr Nyausi, whose family lives in Nyamira.
But when he was referred to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, he began to worry. After some tests, the doctor recommended a CT scan, which revealed a growth close to his son’s anus. He was then referred to Kenyatta National Hospital for further tests.
Two years before, Mr Nyausi had lost his father to cancer, and a CT scan had been part of the diagnosis. He decided to seek treatment at AIC Kijabe Mission Hospital, where further tests were done. It is here that he learnt his son had cancer, malignant germ cell tumour, which was at Stage 3.
“The first thought was ‘why me?’ I was disappointed. Having lost my father to cancer just two years before, I needed no one to tell me that this was a 50/50 situation. My son would either live or die,” he says.
Operation to remove the growth was done in 2018, after which chemotherapy commenced. During the duration of the treatment, the boy moved from the family home to live with his father in Nairobi where he works, since it was much closer to hospital.
Thankfully, Mr Nyausi’s employer was supportive, allowing him all the time he needed to be with his son during the course of treatment. They also had a medical cover. The boy completed treatment in April last year.
Joseph Swakei comes from Narok County. In November 2016, his eight-year-old sister began to get sick. She would especially vomit a lot, and within a short time, had become frail. Moody too. After a week of no improvement, Swakei’s father took her to hospital, where, after a series of tests, it was revealed that she had Wilms Tumour, cancer of the kidney.
“It was a struggle for the family to get the money needed to begin and complete the treatment, in fact, my father had to sell several cows to foot the various tests that were needed before a diagnosis was made,” he says. “Each time they visited hospital for treatment, Swakei and his sister would board in a guest house near the hospital since they had no family in the city, which was costly. “The money was, however, not enough to cover the chemotherapy,” says Swakei.
His family is one of the many that have benefited from an NGO called Friends of Kijabe, which raises funds for such cases. Thanks to this NGO, the girl completed treatment two years ago.