My Name Is Sr. Kayula Lesa And This Is My Story…
My cancer story began in 2006. I was studying a Masters of Science in Development Studies in the United Kingdom and had just completed my degree. As per tradition amongst graduating students we had a party celebrating the end of our final exams. My friends and I had an enjoyable time but I noticed that one of them – Mary (not her real name) was not there. When I inquired about her absence I was told that Mary had been found with a cancerous lump in her breast.
This news startled me because I had recently felt a painless lump in my right breast which I ignored. Gripped by rising panic I mentioned this to a classmate who strongly advised me to see a doctor without any further delay. Heeding her advice I quickly made an appointment with a local doctor, who upon conducting a clinical breast examination felt two suspicious lumps. I was promptly referred to one of the main hospital’s in London where a mammogram (a special x-ray of the breast) was conducted followed by a biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissues for examination to check for the presence of a disease.
The results took a few days to come out. During this waiting period, I tried to convince myself that since the lumps were painless it could not be cancer. With hindsight, I wonder why I came to this conclusion because at that time I knew very little about the disease. Coincidently, both my academic and medical results came out on the same day. I read with much jubilation that I had successfully passed my degree. This joy was however short-lived as the results of my biopsy stated that I had stage 2 breast cancer. In an instant I no longer cared that I had passed. Instead I was scared and heartbroken. Just like any other human being I was filled with a myriad of thoughts. “What if I die? As a religious sister many people look up to me and now this? How was I going to encourage others”?
As I pondered my fate I knew that this situation was too big for me to handle on my own. I cried out to God to help me. I vowed that no matter the outcome I would cleave to Him. In the following weeks and months, as my spirituality deepened so did my personal relationship with God. No situation before or since has brought me closer to God than my cancer journey.
I had a great team of doctors and other health care providers. They helped me understand my treatment plan. The first step was a lumpectomy which is an operation to remove cancer and some of the normal tissue around it but not the breast itself. It is also called breast-conserving surgery or a partial mastectomy. Unfortunately, the specimen showed that the cancer had spread beyond the area where the biopsy was done. So, I underwent surgery again to remove the remaining cancerous cells. This was followed by radiation treatment which is the use of high-energy radiation from x-rays and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. My type of cancer did not require chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs). The doctor however, said the treatment would most likely affect my bones so I would need to check them regularly for the rest of my life. In as much I prayed to God for healing, I did not abandon the doctor’s treatment plan as God heals in so many ways.
CHALLENGES I FACED
Before I am a religious sister I am human and I have emotions. I faced a number of challenges especially in the early years after diagnosis. The fact that I was in another country was particularly difficult. Cancer brought the possibility of death to my doorstep! What if I died without my family close by? What if my condition worsened? What if I died before graduating? I was only 30 years old but I was already experiencing a lot of uncomfortable hot flushes induced by early menopause.
WHAT HELPED ME DURING MY CANCER JOURNEY?
I was given a lot of literature to read to help me understand breast cancer which I find to be a complicated disease. The care I received from the church, family and friends was uplifting! My phone became like a call centre. I received encouragement, quick recovery messages, prayers and so much more. I managed to pay for my treatment through the support of my fellow Religious Sisters of Charity, The Jesuits Congregation and the greater Catholic community. All this care helped my recovery. After what seemed like an eternity, it was time for me come back home. I was so excited and happy to see my family after being away for 3 years. The United Kingdom is a beautiful place, but home is home! This is where my heart is.
RETURNING TO ZAMBIA
Upon returning the plan was to continue treatment here in Zambia, but I soon realized that the treatment procedures were different and the availability of some services were not being offered. Locally, I was put on different medication, yet it was still effective. As a special bone-density machine is not yet available in Zambia, I travel to South Africa at least once a year for a check-up. I am so grateful that I have the privilege to do so mindful that many Zambians cannot afford to. As survivors and advocates let us continue to lobby for the local availability and easy accessibility of all cancer treatments and services.
CANCER DOES NOT DISCRIMINATE
Being a religious sister did not exempt me from getting breast cancer. God does so many healing wonders but this does not mean refusing or even abandoning conventional treatment. We should also pray for the doctors that as they treat, God heals. So, what you can to reduce your breast cancer risk? Eat nutritious meals, engage in physical activity regularly, maintain a healthy body weight and avoid all forms of tobacco.
Currently in Zambia getting diagnosed early and accessing treatment is still a challenge. As I reflect upon this heart-wrenching fact during this year’s INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY commemoration, I deeply appreciate that I am one of the fortunate Zambian’s to still be alive 15 years after a breast cancer diagnosis. I am able to carry out my duties without any difficulty. Neither am I on any medication. My recent routine check-up in December shows that I am still cancer free.
I don’t take this for granted. That is why I volunteer with the Zambian Cancer Society to help support other cancer patients and their families. Amongst other things, I help raise awareness in the communities that I serve. One message that I emphasize is that women should know what is normal for their breasts. I talk to them about monthly breast self-exams and the importance of seeking medical advice promptly if they see or feel anything unusual. I use my own experience as an example.
SECOND CHANCE TO LIFE
Everyday I thank God for giving me a second chance to life. My prayer is that by sharing my story am helping to break the silence on cancer and encourage someone to take positive action about their breast health.
Pictured below is Sr. Kayula Lesa
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